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How racially targeted mass shootings can alter community politics

When Black Americans are the targets, other Black Americans respond with anger and search for more information. That’s not the same for other racial groups.

- May 23, 2021

How do Americans respond to mass shootings that are targeted against a specific racial group? The country has seen several in recent years. On March 16, a shooter in Atlanta predominantly targeted Asian women. In 2019, a shooter targeted Mexican Americans in an El Paso Walmart. In 2015, a white supremacist targeted African Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church.

Such tragedies traumatize the communities involved. And they may mobilize the targeted racial group politically, my research finds.

Americans respond to violence differently when it targets a specific racial group, in ways that vary depending by race. When Black Americans are the targets, other Black Americans respond with anger and search for more information; when other people of color are targeted, African Americans respond with empathy. White and Hispanic Americans have more muted responses, regardless of the target. What does that suggest about political attitudes?

How I did my research

In May and November 2020, I conducted two survey experiments to find out how Americans respond to violence targeting their own race. In the first, using the survey platform Lucid, I surveyed 422 White participants. In the second, using the survey platform Qualtrics, I reached 431 Black and 434 Hispanic participants.

Each group was asked to read a fictional news article describing a mass shooting and then asked how the story made them feel. At the conclusion of the survey, participants were given the opportunity to look at additional information about pending gun-violence legislation. I also measured their likelihood to engage in this action. White respondents were randomly assigned to read about random violence, a shooter targeting Black people, or a shooter targeting White people. Similarly, the Black and Hispanic respondents were randomly assigned to read about random violence, a shooter targeting Black people or a shooter targeting Hispanic people. The race of the shooter was not mentioned in either experiment. Across these conditions, participants were balanced in their age, gender and education.

Recent attacks could push Asian Americans to get more politically active, research suggests

Black people were deeply upset by violence against Blacks

Black, Hispanic and White Americans responded quite differently to a story about a shooter targeting their own racial groups.

When Black participants read about a shooter targeting Black people, they reported anger that was 10 percentage points higher than when they read about a random shooting. Black participants were also nine percentage points more likely to seek out information about gun violence at the end of the survey. These differences were statistically significant.

But White participants didn’t react much to reading about a shooter targeting White people; it made them no angrier nor more likely to investigate gun-violence legislation than reading about a random mass shooting. While that might be because White respondents envisioned a “random” person as also being White, Hispanics also responded no differently to reading about a shooter who killed randomly or a shooter who targeted either Blacks or Hispanics.

Racially targeted violence can evoke empathy

Black participants expressed their greatest levels of empathy when they read about violence targeting Hispanic people. Asked how much the shooting worried them, Black respondents reported worry 11 percentage points higher when Hispanics were targeted than when the shooting was random. Similarly, they reported 12 percentage points more sadness when reading about a shooter targeting Hispanics than killing randomly. Hispanic respondents did not respond differently when reading about a random or Black-targeted shooting.

Black women are willing to wait longer in line to vote than any other demographic group

Why these differences?

Violence against African Americans has run ceaselessly through U.S. history. No wonder African Americans react with increasing anger after reading that a shooter targeted other Black Americans: Being targeted for violence has been a consistent part of their lives. Even a mass shooting against other Blacks in an unspecified location with no information about the shooter’s race can evoke anger.

Anger can be powerful motivation for political engagement, although that’s more true for White Americans than for Blacks. Still, the level of Black participants’ anger in this study suggests that, post-shootings, Black people could be mobilized. Incidents of police violence in the past year have sparked widespread protest activity, but this research suggests mass shootings perpetrated by private citizens are also places for political opportunity.

That legacy of violence also shows in Black respondents’ empathy toward Hispanic Americans. Presumably, Black respondents are still influenced by their own experiences of race-based discrimination, prejudice and violence, understanding that, though the details might be distinct, such events affect others of color in the United States. Awareness of such a common history may be less apparent to Hispanic Americans.

Incidents of racially targeted violence offer critical opportunities for political mobilization. Community organizations and activists can help make sense of what’s apparently senseless, providing history and perspective for contextualizing violence. My research suggests some communities may need such framing more than others. Histories of violence and commonalities between Blacks and Hispanics may be more apparent to Black than to Hispanic Americans. While this study did not survey Asian Americans, many organizations and activists have used the Atlanta shootings to draw attention to anti-Asian violence across the country and to show others how that attack fits within a broader narrative of anti-Asian violence and discrimination throughout U.S. history.

Racially and ethnically targeted violence particularly affects those who share the victims’ group identities. Even for other Blacks (or other groups’ members) who have no connection to those who have been killed or their communities, the meaning of these traumatic events is shaped by the larger community’s collective memories of previous traumas. There are histories of violence perpetrated against not only African Americans, but also Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous Americans, as well as against other racial, ethnic and religious groups. The legacy of violence against African Americans may be more readily apparent to African Americans. My research suggests that activists may wish to draw connections within communities, reminding them of these histories, and also across different communities to highlight these shared experiences of racially targeted violence.

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Kiela Crabtree is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Michigan.