How the News Flubbed a Hate Crime in Kentucky

The social media profile of a murderer in Kentucky shows ample evidence of racism—so why did the media focus primarily on his schizophrenia?
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The murders in Kentucky were easy to miss. They took place on a Wednesday afternoon while the nation was gripped by the unfolding drama of the biggest targeted assassination attempt in United States history. The same day pipe bombs were cropping up in mail intended for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, George Soros, Maxine Waters, and other prominent left-wing figures and critics of President Donald Trump, a white man in Louisville tried to break into a black Baptist church. The man, Gregory Bush, failed to get in because it was securely locked. About 10 minutes later, he walked into a Kroger grocery store and opened fire on Maurice Stallard, a 69-year-old black man who apparently had had no prior contact with the killer. Bush then walked into a parking lot and shot Vickie Lee Jones, a 67-year-old black woman. Both victims died. Next, Bush was confronted by a white, male civilian, also armed. Neither fired on the other. Bush reportedly said, "Whites don't kill whites," then fled the scene. He has since been apprehended.

Now we begin the familiar pattern, in which white men who commit racist murders are characterized as mentally ill lone wolves. When Wave 3 news, the local Louisville NBC affiliate, examined Bush's Facebook account, the outlet shared one detail, reporting, "An unverified Facebook page attributed to a Gregory Bush in Louisville indicates he has struggled with mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, which he wrote was severe enough to put him on medical disability." The local Fox affiliate reported that the Facebook account showed evidence of "mental illness and racist comments" and noted Bush's history of domestic violence—a somewhat fuller reporting.

The New York Times quoted from the "about" section of Bush's Facebook profile, writing, "A Facebook page that appears to belong to Mr. Bush includes a lengthy description of his struggles with mental illness."

It's true. On the about section of his profile, Bush writes [sic]:

I have worked most of my life and battled mental illness throughout my life.My paranoid-schizophrenia finally stopped me from working and now am on mental disability.I'm lucky I made it this far with all the trouble I've caused myself when I get off my medicine.I'm lucky my parents are in good health as it took 2 years too finally get my disabilty.maybe one day I can work again.I'm hoping for the best.

I understand that reporters are on deadline to file, and that those stresses are sometimes compounded when violent citizens threaten journalists—but reporters need to be more careful in the first 24 hours of a cycle of this sort. Focusing solely on Bush's mental illness is dangerous because it stigmatizes all the people with mental illness who are not murderers (almost all of us). Moreover, these rhetorical efforts to isolate white male terrorists tend to obscure the political inspiration for their actions, making it harder to catch the next one intending to do harm.

It's also bad journalism. I spent just an hour going through the public material on Bush's Facebook profile from the last four years. Here's what I found: He really likes Kentucky college sports. He likes comic books and television shows based on comic books. He weighed in on the controversy over whether Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, from the eponymous Netflix show, should be white or Asian. (Bush said that the "SJWs"—social justice warriors—would only be happy with an Asian, whereas his side was more reasonable and open to discussion, so naturally ought to prevail.) He played a lot of video games, especially the post-apocalyptic Fallout series (which I also love). He liked it when Torrey Smith, a black NFL receiver, wore an "All Lives Matter" shirt. He shared a story about "black on black crime" using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. He shared a meme about a marine punching an atheist professor. He shared another meme that said "knowing hate symbols is key to stopping crime," and featured a swastika next to a rainbow flag.

Bush had clicked "like" on 1,300 different Facebook pages linked to various celebrities, organizations, causes, and affinity groups. Beyond Kentucky college sports pages and Papa John's pizza, he liked several pro-gun pages and many pages linked to Trump and conservative politics. One of the pages stigmatizes homelessness and shares memes that vilify liberal philanthropist George Soros. Soros is a common object of hate on these pages, as common as calls to "build the wall" and claims that Democrats had sent themselves fake bombs as a "false flag" operation. A "Make America Great Again" page refers to Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters as "old hags." These pages also share conspiracy theories about the "caravan."

In summary, just a little time on Bush's Facebook page offers evidence for a relatively unsurprising narrative: A pro-gun, right-wing man with a history of domestic violence and strong opinions on race, steeped in right-wing racist Internet culture, chose to commit a hate crime. Foiled at a church, he then moved to a grocery store, where he killed two random black people.

Is this narrative complete? I don't know yet. But it is a much more likely story than singling out mental illness as a sole explanatory key. Most people with mental illness, even most racists with mental illness, do not commit murder. In cases like these, journalists and consumers of news need to stop relying on simplistic, stigmatizing explanations. We must dig just a little deeper so as to identify and then stop the forces that are turning all of these white male lone wolf terrorists into a pack.

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