Opinion: Extremism is not about race

June 2, 2013


“I know this sounds racist, but ...”

So goes the subject line on last week’s email from Bill, a reader. It seems Bill has an idea. Given that “all of the radical terrorists have been Muslims,” he wants the government to mount a program to surveil every follower of Islam who immigrates to these shores. We are, claims reader Bill, “faced with a population who swears an oath to God to kill Americans — not Canadians, not Mexicans, but Americans.” It is, he says, “time we protect ourselves.”


For our purposes today, we will ignore the fact that Islam is not a race, so animus toward Muslims is not, strictly speaking, “racist.” Bill’s point is clear enough. And his anger is understandable, coming as it does after the Boston Marathon bombing and the savage butchering of a British soldier by Islamic extremists. Predictably, the U.K. has suffered a rash of right-wing demonstrations and attacks on mosques ever since Lee Rigby’s death. One suspects there’d be no shortage of sympathy for Bill’s suggestion — and for measures even more draconian — both there and here.

But I find myself thinking about white boys.

Consider: This nation’s recent history is stained by repeated acts of school violence. From Newtown, Conn., to West Paducah, Ky., to Santee, Calif., to Eugene, Ore., to Conyers, Ga., to Pearl, Miss., to Jonesboro, Ark., to DeKalb, Ill., to Littleton, Colo., we have seen scores of people killed and injured. The violence has been random, large scale and indiscriminate, identical to terrorism except that it has no political motive. And the profile of the assailants is virtually always the same: white boys and young men from suburban, small-town or rural communities.

Small wonder Chris Rock got such a huge laugh when he joked about diving off the elevator when two high school age white kids got on. “I am scared of young white boys,” cracked Rock in 1999.

If, then, the reasoning is that we are entitled to demand extra scrutiny of people who meet a profile associated with random violence, can we expect arguments for the mass surveillance of young white boys any time soon? Of course not. You won’t even see random school shootings framed in racial dimensions by the media, even though those dimensions are glaringly obvious.

White boys are a known — and a norm. Indeed, many of those in media and elsewhere who decide how perceptions will be framed were once young white boys themselves. So it’s easy for them to recognize the unfairness and absurdity of tarring America’s 16.8 million white males, ages 15 to 24, with the actions of a few.

But Muslims are different, right? For most of us, they are not a known or a norm, but an Other. And so, some of us are perfectly comfortable using the actions of a few of them to tar all 1.6 billion.

Look, I don’t blame reader Bill for his frustration or his anger, or for wanting to interdict Muslim extremism. I’ll grant that in too many nations in the Islamic world, extremism is too little challenged and is, indeed, encouraged. I’ll also grant that most of the terror that racks this planet is the work of Muslim extremism, and we must be energetic and creative in ferreting out that extremism on our soil.

But the key word in all of that is not Muslim. It is, “extremism,” i.e., the willingness to do anything in furtherance of a goal. Extremism is what we ought to fear, regardless of the cause it serves. Even if that cause is our own national security.

The moment we fail to understand that, the moment we become sanguine about this idea of holding the many responsible for the crimes of the few, is the moment we betray what we purport to hold dear.

Even reader Bill seems to understand that, if only obliquely. “I know this sounds racist,” he says.

Yeah. Well, you know, Bill, there’s a reason for that.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Steven Gaudreau 4 years, 10 months ago

I find Pitts over use of "white boys" to be racist.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 10 months ago

More accurately, you find it a good way to completely ignore the whole point of the column.

50YearResident 4 years, 10 months ago

"Leonard says: "But the key word in all of that is not Muslim. It is, “extremism,” i.e., the willingness to do anything in furtherance of a goal. Extremism is what we ought to fear, regardless of the cause it serves. Even if that cause is our own national security." Really? Even if that cause is our own national security? If national security is at risk, then maybe extremism will be needed to defend our national security. This will include all of us including the Muslims living here and including those rowdy young white boys too. National security is a top priority, that needs defending by everyone that calls their self an American.

tomatogrower 4 years, 10 months ago

Are you willing to give up all your rights in the name of national security? Would you be willing not to travel in the name of national security? Are you willing to have a camera installed in your home in the name of national security? Are you willing to give up your guns in the name of national security? How about martial law? These are the extremes of national security. Do you want that?

50YearResident 4 years, 10 months ago

Makes you wonder what religion Pitts and Obama really are, doesn't it?

Bruce Bertsch 4 years, 10 months ago

You obviously know zero about Islam. Muslims do not consider who your father is to determine your religion. You are the same as the person Pitts writes about; a bigot who responds to an article to prove his ignorance. Thank you for playing.

50YearResident 4 years, 10 months ago

Clarification, moderationman was not replying to my post. He is replying to a post that he had removed from playing. That's why it has nothing to do with my post.

voevoda 4 years, 10 months ago

You don't need to be a Muslim in order to be appalled by the wholesale condemnation of all Muslims, everywhere, for the crimes of a few, 50YearResident. If that kind of thinking is accepted in regard to Muslims, then it will be accepted in regard to other religious groups, too. Jews have already experienced the consequences of that kind of thinking in the Holocaust. For decades, Catholic and Protestant extremists in Ireland acted upon that kind of thinking, creating terror in Northern Ireland. When columnists and presidents did not condemn all Catholics and all Protestants everywhere but instead put the blame solely on the terrorists, did you, 50YearResident, wonder what religion they really were?

tomatogrower 4 years, 10 months ago

Mr. Pitts is saying that the vast majority of Muslims do not want to kill anyone, just like the vast majority of white boys do not want to shoot up a school. So we should not target any one group, just because a few people in that group commit a crime. Does that help? I use to be a para in the schools, so I know how to help people in reading comprehension. First of all, don't get hung up on just a word or a phrase you don't quite understand. Then it's really important that you read the whole thing, because there might be a twist in the end. And it's important that you read as objectively as possible. You may not share the opinions of the writer, but you cannot dispute the writer's opinion, if you do not understand it.

50YearResident 4 years, 10 months ago

Thanks for the lesson in reading comprehension, sometimes I read between the lines. It's a bad habit of mine.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 10 months ago

Let's look at four races of people: blue people, green people, purple people and orange people. Within the blue people, about 1% of the population have such extreme views that it leads to violence. Within the green and purple peoples, it's about 2%. But for some reason, the orange people have within their population 4% that have views that lead to violence, or four times that of the blue people.

While it's true that the overwhelming majorities of all peoples are peaceful, clearly, one group is more prone to violence than the other groups. Is it racist or discriminatory to seeks answers as to why that is? Is it racist to even take note of the discrepancy?

jafs 4 years, 10 months ago

Given your assumptions, it wouldn't be racist, etc. to notice the difference.

However, I seriously doubt that the assumptions are correct. And, even if they were, the point remains that the overwhelming majority are peaceful. The real question is how to prevent the actions of a very small minority from negatively affecting the rest of us, regardless of blue, green, etc.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 10 months ago

I do think you will find differences between races, cultures, religions, ethnicities, etc. And those differences will be in crime rates, religious extremism, teen pregnancies, etc. Then you will find differences in how those issues were approached and then differences in outcomes to how those differences were dealt with. Look it up, I think it's called sociology.

jafs 4 years, 10 months ago

You can think whatever you like, no matter how inaccurate or incorrect it is.

Any evidence that different "races" (your first post uses that term, rather than the expanded and more inclusive ones in the second) have different levels of violence?

And, how do you define "race" exactly? It's a very slippery concept.

Mike Ford 4 years, 10 months ago

this so called extremism is caused by bullies. for the young white men it's jocks and rich preppies who make these kids feel like outsiders by ostracizing these young white boys and making them feel like they are nothing and can do nothing productive. in the Muslim world at least from what I've observed this goes back to Spain or the Balkans and the fight over territory at least 700 years ago between European Christians and the Ottoman Empire and moves of expulsion during the Crusades or to recent memory where European and American powers desired oilfields and drew up geographical boundaries to suit their thirst (Kuwait) and used people like Saddam Hussein and Muhajadin as pawns to fight Iran or the USSR and overthrew leaders who advocated nationalism of natural resources in places like Iran and install puppets like Shah Pahlavi which led to the overthrow and installation of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979-80. Hate to say it but many Americans are clueless and make clueless comments because they don't value history or know it for that matter.

tomatogrower 4 years, 10 months ago

Please point out the hatred he propagates. Try making your points with evidence.

Mike Ford 4 years, 10 months ago

according to Kansans wanting to stay in a bubble and keep it simple.

oldexbeat 4 years, 10 months ago

Having stood in the Beg Mosque in Sarajevo with dear friends -- I remember that Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics attacked the Muslim city of Sarajevo, held it hostage for years, and tried to kill everone in it. Didn't hear much about the religion of the attackers did we? No. (Note: the same three groups did fight to protect their city -- damn, hard to be rational and blame groups. There are days I would like to be an ignorant racist hater, but doesn't work...)

Abdu Omar 4 years, 10 months ago

What I don't understand is that Britain, USA, France cut up the Ottoman Empire when it fell after WW I. They they appointed the kings, dictators and yes men to their goals. Then in 2012 when the Arab little people realized they could have a free society if they fought for it, the Arab spring was born. What a nice thing until you hear, "look, them Muslims are always fighting each other". "Go ahead, let them Muzzies kill each other, then there will be few we have to kill." (The poor grammar is a quote from some I have heard.)

Those of us who study history, not the history that is rewritten by special interest grroups, but real history, you will find that the three Great Religions of Judaism, Christianty and Islam have co-existed for centuries. I don't want to hear "they are always fighting each other", because it isn't true. There are always renegade leaders every where and that is a fact. But it doesn't reflect on the people who suffer their dictatorship.

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