Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eve Carson's murder: Gender, race, and "Missing White Woman Syndrome"

My blog break didn't last long, because when I have something on my mind I need to write it out. Unfortunately, today I am trying to understand the tragedy that has taken place in my home town. You see, I live about three miles from where UNC student body president Eve Carson was murdered last week, and our whole community is grappling with this senseless loss, especially as the story has continued to unfold, with two young men arrested and charged with the crime in the past day.

This morning I was driving from Chapel Hill up to Washington, D. C., listening to the latest developments on WUNC public radio and then thinking about the news long after I got out of range. I had been pondering "Missing white woman syndrome," the disproportionate swell of media attention that comes whenever a pretty white girl or woman is missing or killed. It's an offensive concept no matter how you look at it, a phenomenon does a disservice to everyone: other people who are victims of crime, of course, those whose cases do not get as thoroughly investigated; and even the white women themselves, who become objectified. I can imagine Eve's grieving friends having to defend her against thoughtless comments I've seen on blogs, basically having to say that yes, she was pretty and popular, but she was also a leader, a caring person of substance. She wasn't "just" a pretty white woman. Even those defenses seem to reinforce the stereotype.

It made me hark back to what Carol Lee Flinders wrote about in her book At the Root of This Longing. Bear with me because I am paraphrasing, away from my library, but Flinders basically says that every random murder of a woman by a man who does not know her reinforces a system of oppression that keeps all women down. It becomes an archetypal crime--each violent act reminds each woman that men are in charge, that the best we can hope for is male protection from other violent males.

Race comes into this case as well, in especially pernicious ways. I believe that despite our dreams of liberty, racism is America's "original sin," the historical wrong that is still not healed to this day. In a tragic boomerang, two young black men killing a young white woman has the effect of reinforcing our worst ingrained fears and racial stereotypes, ultimately perpetuating the whole system of racism. I was appalled by the open racism displayed by many commenters on The New York Times coverage of the Carson case. Once the suspects were charged, many people immediately began to call for the death penalty and vigilante justice.

This made me think about Susan Faludi's book The Terror Dream, which has stuck with me more than any other book I have read in the past year. Faludi argues that Americans have developed a protective myth of "women and children safe in the arms of their men" (quote from PW review). Faludi says that "the American myth to which we resort was constructed to cover up a perceived and foundational male shame," that of white men being unable to protect "their" women from Indian raids. She cites the media's inaccurate coverage of soldier Jessica Lynch's experience in Iraq as "a classic example of the media rewriting a real-life story to fit the master narrative of our security myth, just as our culture has done over hundreds of years.... The narrative we keep returning to demands inflated male heroes rescuing a helpless girl, ideally one in danger of violation, which is the story the media wanted out of the Lynch rescue tale--and distorted to get."

Part of the insidious danger of our security myth is that over the years it has morphed to include many different "dark outsiders" as enemies. Faludi convincingly connects the anxiety over Indian raids as played out in our fascination with "Cowboys and Indians," the historical demonization of African-American men, and our hero narrative constructed after 9/11. Faludi says that much of this process is unconscious, but that doesn't make it any less real:

"We didn't remember the original trauma. We are, indeed, a history-averse culture.... But we are profoundly shaped as a society by the reigning mythology that our original trauma produced. We are shaped by its tangible cultural legacy--a worldview whose instructions are handed down in everything from newspaper accounts to novels to movie scripts. And that is the legacy we reach for all the more strongly in times of threat and crisis. The fact that we aren't aware of its historical provenance only makes us more susceptible to its siren call. We take it as a bedrock given, as normal, and fail to recognize the ways it disfigures our response."

Which brings me back to Eve Carson, partly explaining why her death got so much attention and has provoked such primal rage in demand for immediate punishment for her killers. The final cruel irony of "missing white woman syndrome" unfolded as I drove into range of WAMU public radio in Washington, D. C. The 11 am national news feed included reporting from Chapel Hill, that one of the suspects in Eve Carson's death was also being charged with the killing of Abhijit Mahato. You have probably never heard of him. Google "Abhijit Mahato," you get 12,900 results, compared to 126,000 results for "Eve Carson." He was a 29-year old engineering Ph. D. student at Duke who was found shot to death in his off-campus apartment in January. Most of us in the Triangle were probably vaguely aware of his murder, but as shocking as the crime was, it did not make an enduring news impression, even locally. I am ashamed to say that I could not have told you his name or picked out his photo before today.

If Mahato's murder had been taken more seriously, could Eve's death been prevented? If student/neighborhood safety in Durham had been taken more seriously, could Mahato's death have been prevented? We'll never know the answer to those maddening questions. Another person had been charged in Mahato's murder, and until today, police had not said there were other suspects in the case. But the tragedies accumulate as this story develops, woven through with the threads of race and gender that are part of the fabric of our nation's history.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If Mahato's murder had been taken more seriously, could Eve's death been prevented?" I didn't know about the link in these brutal murders until tonight, and am haunted by your question. I am guitly myself of experiencing the stereotypical reaction upon first viewing the photos of the killers and your comments have helped me to contextualize, but not excuse, my response.

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Had Eve Carson been an attractive, talented Duke student who was murdered in her apartment in Durham, I doubt that it would have gotten as much press. For better or worse, people are much more shocked by crime (especially violent crime) in Chapel Hill than by crime in Durham, in part because of the simple statistical base-rate differences in crime rate.

Other factors that differed were that 1) she was a prominent public presence on the UNC campus, whereas Mahato had a smaller circle of close friends and colleagues and had a fairly low profile on Duke's campus, 2) the circumstances surrounding her death were much less obvious, especially because she wasn't identified for the first 24 hours and Mahato's murder was obviously tied to the burglary of his apartment.

Many of us suspected (again, based on simple statistical base-rates) that Eve Carson's murder wasn't at all random; that it was committed by someone she knew. Given the demographics of the UNC student body, it would have been someone very much like her, from a similar socioeconomic and educational background. I doubt the interest would have been any less if that had been the case.

I don't think the difference in press and public interest can be attributed to the fact that she was female and white; it was equal parts the mysterious circumstances, the location, and her public role. I'm not saying that it makes Mahato's death any less horrible, or the fact that had it been solved earlier she might have been saved any less regrettable. But I think it's a vast oversimplification to peg the public interest to "Missing white woman syndrome".

2:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very thought-provoking, Amy.

Certainly men are more often the victims of violent crime, but their greater "general expendability" causes this to be overlooked, just as we ignore the huge numbers of men who are maimed in industrial accidents. And, as you point out, attractive white women get huge amounts of attention when they disappear.

Another fact woth noting is that Demario Atwood was in the courthouse (having violated his probation) just two days before he allegedly killed Eve Carson. This individual should have been returned to jail, except they couldn't find his file, and so his hearing was postponed 4 weeks!

A violent offender breaks
probation, and they leave him on the street for an additional 4 weeks.

6:55 PM  
Blogger MamaMo said...

I was very disappointed to hear the judge in the Durham case appeal to the General Assembly to enact "gang laws" during the short session and call them "Eve's Law", with not even the slightest hint of mention of Mr. Mahato's murder, the arraignment for which he was presiding. Why is her life perceived as more valuable, even though they were both victims of random violence? A sad commentary, I think, on our society.

10:00 AM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Mamamo, thank you for bringing that to our attention. I hadn't heard that. Here's the link to the WRAL report of the Judge's speech.

Judge Craig Brown did also say, "Let's not rush to judgment. Let's be thoughtful and considerate in terms of anything that we do."

"Any anti-gang legislation that might pass in the vengeance of the moment needs to be balanced, thoughtful and deal with not only punishment but the underlying problems that cause our young people to become members of a gang in the first place."

...but I agree that calling it "Eve's Law" is a bad idea. Even if it is intended as a positive tribute to her life, it is not only a premature, emotional knee-jerk suggestion, but it also reinforces the "rescue myth."

I would guess that statistically, gang violence claims the lives of more minority citizens than white citizens. To name an anti-gang law after the one white woman killed in a random act of violence further dismisses and diminishes the reality of the cost of gang violence to all communities.

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I consider myself an ultra-liberal, I find that most of Amy Tiemann's statements are mere knee-jerk liberal mutterings based on the "party line." Many of the sources she quotes are pure propaganda without any nod to true research or the truth. In the end, after reading what Tiemann had to say, one is left with nothing of substance - certainly no real arguments to support her claims.

11:29 PM  

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