Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Ethnicity Matters, Especially If You're The Gunman

Nidal Malik Hasan i i

Authorities say Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, opened fire at Fort Hood in Texas, killing 13 and injuring dozens more. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
Nidal Malik Hasan

Authorities say Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, opened fire at Fort Hood in Texas, killing 13 and injuring dozens more.

Getty Images

Just a few more words about last week's twin tragedies — the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, and the following day in Orlando, Fla.

Both of those put me in the mind of a habit many of us had when I was growing up (and, no, it was not that long ago). We would run to the television when we saw a black person on it — literally, run, and call everyone to the set to watch. Now, I don't remember what words we would use; it was it something like, "Mom, there's a black person on the TV." (I think the word we used was probably "Negro." As I said, I don't remember.)

But I do remember it was considered such a rarity and of such importance [to see an African-American on television]. It was assumed everybody would want to know about it — unless, of course, it was something embarrassing, like a black person being arrested for something.

Which brings me to the other thing we would all do when I was growing up...

We would pray — sometimes silently, but very often out loud — that if something bad had happened — a crime, or some other mishap — that no black person was involved.

It was assumed that success was individual but failure or disgrace was collective. It was assumed that while one black person's accomplishment might not be deemed to reflect on the rest of us, one black person's defect surely would, so we might as well get ready.

I actually have some personal experience with this. I was a new reporter at The Washington Post years ago when another black female reporter there named Janet Cooke wrote a story about what she said was an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. That story set the city on fire and later won one of our industry's highest honors.

The only problem was, Janet was a pathological liar, and the whole story was a lie.

It was an ugly, painful mess. But in the middle of that mess I had to rent an apartment. Being just out of school, I had no credit, but I did have a job and a college diploma. The landlord demanded not only to verify my employment but to see my diploma.

As a precaution, he said. Because he wanted to be sure I really had gone to Harvard; because, he told me to my face, of Janet Cooke. It was a request he did not make of my white roommate. And we wanted that apartment, so I showed it to him.

So I think I understand how some of my fellow citizens feel right now as they watch the news unfold about a Muslim Army psychiatrist who allegedly massacred more than a dozen of his colleagues and wounded more than 30 others.

Jason Rodriguez i i

Jason Rodriguez, 40, surrendered to police after allegedly killing one and wounding others in a shooting rampage at an office building in Orlando, Fla. Gerardo Mora/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Gerardo Mora/Getty Images
Jason Rodriguez

Jason Rodriguez, 40, surrendered to police after allegedly killing one and wounding others in a shooting rampage at an office building in Orlando, Fla.

Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

And then the following day, a Latino man allegedly shot up his former workplace. And this follows, of course, the shooting at Virginia Tech, where a student who had immigrated from Korea shot and killed dozens of students and faculty, and yet another, where an Asian immigrant shot and killed a number of people at a community center.

I can understand how members of these groups felt then and now — the sense of anger and shame, the shock of recognition that they too might have shared some of the assailant's resentments at one point about small or not-so-small slights, and then the revulsion that someone would take innocent lives because of those resentments.

Then there's the wondering, how do my fellow Americans see me now?

Can I just tell you? I can also see where some Americans are puzzled by all this. They look at the countries from which many immigrants come, and they see places where you can't get your telephone hooked up or your business licenses approved without a bribe. Or, they see governments that rule either ineptly or brutally. And so they wonder, what on Earth minorities here have to complain about?

They either don't believe minorities are slighted, or wonder why those slights loom so large.

And the answer, I think, is that it is especially painful to live in and love a country where you are constantly told you'll be judged by what you do — not by your father's name or clan, but by your own actions and efforts — and to continually find out that that is not the case. That the color of your skin, the origin of your name sets you apart, forcing you to prove that love of country in a way that people without those attributes do not seem to have to do.

Is there a cure for all this? Does it just take time? I don't know.

I just know that I hope when my children see that a black person does something wrong, they'll say that it's a shame. Just not their shame.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues