Having lived in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, for 10 years before coming to Luther, recent events have demonstrated to me how "close to home" the societal fear and distrust of others has become. Recent headlines designated a Somali man, who was involved in an attack at a local mall, as a "Soldier of ISIS." Many took this claim as truth and extended it to the broader Somali community. Panic and mischaracterization of both Somalis and Muslims ensued. In response, I felt compelled to write about how we, as a society, can be complicit in creating spaces that are unsafe for communities when we do not admonish erroneous and unfair perceptions of people in our community, instead allowing the misrepresentations brought on by the acts of a few to characterize "truth" about the many.
Last Saturday in Saint Cloud, an individual wielding a knife attacked nine people at the local mall. The nine victims sustained various injuries, while the attacker was subsequently killed by a local off-duty police officer who was shopping in the mall at the time. After the attack, several news reports started to develop surrounding the details about the attacker. Specifically, initial reports suggested it was someone who was east African (possibly Somali), Muslim, and had ties to broader events of terror occurring in the United States. These initial reports led to headlines in the local and national papers, which, in turn, led to assumptions regarding the attacker, as well as the broader communities to which he belonged.
It is not the tragedy of the attack that I am writing about. There is no dispute: it was a horrific and violent event; one that unfortunately reminds us that once-thought safe spaces are vulnerable to the occurrence of violence. Instead, this writing is in response to some (not all) of the community "reactions" to this incident—reactions that demonstrate the dynamics in which xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism reify harmful perceptions of people—perceptions that we must question!
The truth is the initial narrative does not fit the more complex, evolving facts of the situation. The reality is that the attacker was a member of the Saint Cloud and Somali community. A recent college junior at Saint Cloud State University, he was also a security guard and had no known history of violence or radicalized behavior. Follow up investigations indicate that he had no ties to recent bombings that occurred in New Jersey and New York, nor is there any evidence that he had a specific link to ISIS. Regardless of the developing facts on the case, perception drives the reality. Murmurs of the Somali and Muslim "threats" abounded on social media and news coverage.
Multiple questions arise from these issues. What can be done? How do we effectively react to the overreaction of others seemingly predisposed to broad generalizations and fear mongering? Silence is complicity—we cannot afford to sit back and simply do nothing; it is absolutely necessary that a comprehensive, yet nuanced approach be employed to engage the social ills of hate and bigotry. Currently, I offer a course called "Haters Gonna Hate, the Sociological Study of Hate Crimes and Hate Groups," a course with an admittedly irreverent title that compels students to unflinchingly examine the utter realities of bigotry and intolerance. One aspect of the course is to appreciate that, as sociologist Gordon Allport suggests, prejudice is an irrational, damaging attitude, one that can manifest in the minds of people despite clear evidence to the contrary. What's more, the machinations of bigotry do not reside solely in the implicit bias of the individual, but are also present within the structure of institutions, where the unequal treatment and denigration of others are woven into the fabric of groups' values, norms and processes. We simply must challenge these practices.
To respond to the realities of prejudice and potential bigotry on the macro level is to hold accountable the institutions that perpetuate (unwittingly or otherwise) messages that generalize, mischaracterize, and vilify others. It is our responsibility to collectively "call out" institutions such as the media, the criminal justice system and government agencies when strategies and practices employed by such entities threaten the well-being of people within our society. Simply, we must come together as community, to support our Muslim and Somali friends and neighbors who have been maligned and mischaracterized by the broader social strata.
I was heartened to read recent posts of the Saint Cloud community offering a message of unity and alliance in the face of hate and fear. I was encouraged to hear calls for perspective from government and police officials to not generalize or "jump to conclusions." More needs to be done to stand with those who are affected by both individual prejudice and systems of oppression. Let's stand together and create institutional change by examining policies and practices that create an atmosphere of fear and distrust. Let's stand collectively with marginalized communities and demand an end to mischaracterization and fear mongering.