Humans are notoriously terrible at accurately assessing themselves. That’s why medical researchers question the validity of self-reported data and pollsters rely on more subtle questioning to tease out people’s attitudes than a straightforward ask. And yet, at the highest echelons of American journalism and governance, human self-knowledge is still presumed to be easily accessible, particularly when it comes to racism.
The day after the Atlanta spa shootings, in which six of the eight massacred were women of Asian descent, Captain Jay Baker, the spokesman for Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia, relayed that the suspect himself claimed the attacks were not racially motivated, attributing them instead to a “sexual addiction” and a “really bad day.” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds later affirmed this: “During his interview, he gave no indicators that this was racially motivated. We asked him that specifically and the answer was no.”
The rush to rule out racism created a swift backlash. “Many of us familiar with criminal procedure were taken aback that the police officers in this case took the motives of the killer so seriously, as though he was being truthful, perhaps even definitive,” says John S.W. Park, Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. “Police officers can convey a general sense of what a suspect said, but we normally don’t and shouldn’t rely on the murderers to be truthful about their motives, nor do we expect people who’ve murdered so many people to determine for us what we ought to think of their actions.” It certainly didn’t help that Captain Baker was later found to have promoted a T-shirt on Facebook saying, “Covid 19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”
The jump to dismiss racism, bolstered by the authoritative heft of official government statements, quickly ricocheted across major media outlets, gaining even more legitimacy as it spread through reporting. CNN anchor Jim Sciutto tweeted, “‘indicators now may not be’ racially motivated, says Cherokee Cty Sheriff Frank Reynolds.” On…