America's Reaction to James Boulware Is White Privilege at Its Finest


On Saturday night, James L. Boulware of Paris, Texas, opened fire on Police Headquarters in Dallas, shattering the building's glass entrance, leaving dozens of bullet holes in a police cruiser out front and planting numerous pipe bombs around the perimeter. 

Ron Jenkins/AP

Boulware then drove his van, rigged with explosives, to a Jack-in-the-Box parking lot and engaged officers in a multi-hour standoff before a sniper's bullet ripped through his windshield and ended his life.

Brandon Wade/AP

Many questions arise after incidents like this. Was the perpetrator a terrorist? Did his actions indicate some broader cultural pathology? Will other people who look like him be held accountable for his actions?

The answer, in this case, appears to be no. James L. Boulware is a white man in America, so James L. Boulware's story gets to be about just James L. Boulware.

This is hardly the case for others: When a pair of Muslim gunmen murdered 12 cartoonists at the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, cries poured in, urging Muslims worldwide to reckon with the alleged violent elements of their religion.

When Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a black man, murdered two police officers in Brooklyn, New York, in December 2014, the NYPD tied his actions to those of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's policies concerning them more generally.

When black people are brutalized by police — in Ferguson, Missouri, and beyond — state violence is often justified by pointing to alleged black pathologies: black-on-black crime, criminal tendencies and broader pleas to racial respectability politics.

But when white Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately flies a plane carrying 150 people into a mountainside, killing everyone on board, he's a troubled individual whose pathologies are his alone. And when James L. Boulware launches an all-out assault on a police station in Dallas, he's just a guy who launched an all-out assault on a police station in Dallas — a man with a son, whom he loved, and a complex family history punctuated by individual frustrations, homicidal fantasies and real-life domestic abuse.

The media's story of white perpetrators is inevitably more complicated and humanizing, but such is the nature of privilege: Where the actions of black people and Muslims get framed in terms of broader cultural characteristics and stereotypes, whites are treated with the presumption that they're motivated by factors unrelated to their race or religion. They start from a place of neutrality, and their narratives grow as specific information is revealed. Meanwhile, black people and Muslims are black and Muslim, first and foremost. Everything else must stem from that fact.

This tendency to individualize white behavior while framing people of color in terms of monolithic stereotypes has presented itself in cities from Baltimore to Waco, Texas, and back, and in situations as disparate as urban uprisings and biker gang shootouts, as well as those outlined above. It remains a key feature of racial inequality in America. And it doesn't appear to be going anywhere soon.