Monday, March 1, 2010

Some thoughts about racism and mental illness: The Wilkinsburg shooting

Today marks the 10th anniversary of a major tragedy in Wilkinsburg, Pa., the town just outside Pittsburgh that I call home. A black man named Ronald Taylor who was suffering from mental illness shot five white men, all but one of them in fast-food joints and three of which died, and he now sits on death row because of his crimes. But my connection to the incident goes beyond my having formerly lived there -- it took place within feet of an apartment I had moved out of 5 1/2 years previously.

What gives it pathos was that one of the victims was the stepfather of three girls with whom I attended high school -- one in the band, another in the interracial youth ministry through which I eventually became a Christian.

Back in the late 1980s I got to know their biological father, who himself had suffered from mental illness (his marriage to their mother had fallen apart because of it). However, he was dealing with his issues and at the time of his death about 20 years ago was eulogized as an advocate for fellow sufferers.

That's not all. When he learned that I knew several of his daughters (there were seven siblings), he proceeded to tell me that he had actually taught his kids to reject racism on not just a personal level but a systemic one as well. He said that he even took them to poorer neighborhoods to point out "how some people are forced to live." He was so extremely passionate about racial justice that he even asked me how they had conducted themselves when it came to such matters. (Their late mother had also supported racial justice; indeed, they had moved to Wilkinsburg precisely because of the diversity.)

I never recalled it being an issue, so that's what I told him.

You see the contrast here. See, all Taylor saw was the color of a man's skin; he allowed that anger over legitimate historic injustices to get to him, never taking the responsibility for his attitudes and actions -- and yet the stepchildren of one of his victims had learned better. Nor did Taylor to my knowledge humble himself and seek help for his condition, unlike their dad.

You can thus understand my revulsion when one of my black militant then-co-workers began displaying a picture of Taylor on her desk at work, as if he were the primary victim, and to this day I wish I had given her a piece of my mind. Because she didn't have, or apparently care to know, the whole story.

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