Why the Murder of Nia Wilson Calls Us to Rethink Random Crimes

Why the Murder of Nia Wilson Calls Us to Rethink Random Crimes July 28, 2018

I kept seeing the word “random” appear over and over again in the media coverage of the murder of Nia Wilson, a young Black woman.

At the time of this writing, the alleged murderer, John Lee Cowell, a White man, with a history of mental illness, violence, and criminal activity, has not been associated with any White supremacist organization. Interestingly, his lack of activity with said organizations has been used to potentially rule out a racist motive.

Certainly, Cowell did not personally know Wilson, and yet, the word, “random,” the use of White supremacist and extremist organizations as a marker for racism, and mental illness kept standing out to me and striking a chord with the growing population who mourn her death.

Something seemed off.

In this post, I discuss the need for a more contemporary understanding of race when dealing with violent crimes to ensure that justice has been served.

I discuss how the “race or random/mental illness” argument undermines the social progress, pointing to a re-envisioned justice system that presumes innocent until proven guilty along with a process grounded in U.S. social realities.

Nothing Random ‘Bout Race

Race is not random, and colorblindness is the evil that promotes this “random or race” binary.  I feel convinced that it is a seed of the devil. Saying “I don’t see race,” is a friendly evil thing to say.

Although some people unquestioningly use the colorblind language because of its commonality, others are really saying:

“I choose to ignore anything related to how race has impacted your and my life to remain comfortable. I am quite uncomfortable about race, but I lack the skills to see it without my thinking of my own race or perspectives I want to avoid.”

Because brevity is king and over-reductive racial talk is queen, these individuals choose to say, “I don’t see color.”

Black people who think they have surpassed the matrix and have an elevated state of consciousness use this language as if they are the best thang since the Civil Rights Movement. I see the pride on their faces when they say, “I don’t see color, “but typically, I don’t have to dig deep before they can identify people of different races and ethnicities.

Colorblindness is something we tell ourselves to help us sleep during day and night. It is our blanket to cover us from seeing the condition of our heart.

Our commitment to using colorblind language results in an antiquated overinvestment in framing racism as racial slurs, expressing overt bigotry, or formal involvement in an organized group committed to racism.

If we derive our definition of racism from individuals involved in al fringe hate organization dedicated to White supremacy, then we ignore all of the kind, friendly, colorblind people who say and do racially problematic things in our daily world who also reinforce this power structure.

As for White people within the U.S., this framing allows a substantial population to reap the benefits of White supremacy while using their fellow fringe organized people as the scapegoat.

White supremacists do not make “good” White people choose to discriminate by avoiding People of Color, save for service work or for charity.  That is, neo-Nazis do not make the White family in suburbia decide to live their lives in racial isolation and pretend that their decisions are detached from race.

There are “good” White people who will travel the world to help poor Families of Color, but they do not want to connect with the ones in the “hood” side of their own city.

White supremacist organizations did not make them behave this way.

And there are the ones who love to show how they support local People of Color, as long as they get to maintain approval from White people. They get to feel right about how progressive they are without rocking the racial boat by challenging their White friends.

Hate groups did not make these individuals live in such a way.

Race  is very much a part of identities, especially in the United States.

To think otherwise is a willfully ignorant attempt to avoid responsibility in the societal state of affairs.

Our world is laden with messages about our identities.  As social creatures, we look at symbols and markers, so to speak, of identity (i.e., race, class, gender) in our interactions with people.

A White woman did not just wake up in bed with a random White man, choose to live in a random White neighborhood, seek out random White schools, work at a randomly White business, and select White friends, and attend a randomly White church, go to the random White country club.

The White male-dominated government did not randomly create suburbs and housing projects. The majority of White America did not randomly go along with the policies and practices that unjustly benefited them at the expense of other groups.

No matter what your race and ethnicity, your romantic and friendship “preferences” are not random.

You and I are not random.

There are reasons and stories to explore about these supposedly random ways we so happen to live racially homogenous or heterogeneous lives.

Herein lies the battle. One of the main reasons why a host of people get easily upset about when people call attention to these issues is because they already know they cannot really justify their choices. They have gone through life, like a lot of us, not even thinking about how race, gender, class, gender, and other social constructs have shaped how they live.

Not So Random Racial Legacy

Arguably, Nia Wilson’s death opens the door for a challenging and necessary conversation about the relationship between contemporary racial discourse and violence against Black women. It reveals America’s family heirloom of callousness that has been handed down to certain people, particularly the White people who receive their inheritance.

After all, we have witnessed a segment of the population go into tirades because from seeing a “random” NFL player who is Black refuse to stand for the national anthem in this free country. Yet, their lack of compassion or passion for justice becomes just as palpable whenever a Black woman is murdered by a White person. With these individuals, we observe defensiveness about race because they respond as if the mere mentioning of racism proves to be the most arduous task to ask of a person. And this callousness has a history.

The murder of Nia Wilson possibly points to a history of a country which accepted and promoted violence against Black women.

Danielle L. McGuire has written extensively about the history of Black women in resistance politics and the ignored violent and sexual predatory aspects of White supremacy.

I think McGuire’s book, a worthwhile read, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power helps a richer insight into U.S. history.

Below, I share several examples that speak to why certain people might see the murder of Nia Wilson as a nod to historical racist and sexist violence against Black women (See McGuire’s text and other resources for more context, detail, and history).

  • Dan Olinger, a White teenager, forced Sadie Mae Gibson, a twenty-three-year-old school teacher into the bushes at gunpoint and raped her.
  • Three police officers threatened to throw Rosa Lee Cherry, a high school student, in jail unless she got into the patrol car. They sexually molested her.
  • Sixteen-year-old Lila Belle Carter was raped and murder by a White insurance collector, as she ran an errand to the store. He left her lying face down in a puddle of mud.
  • Two White police officers offered thirty-two-year-old mother of two, Nannie Strayhorn, a ride home, but instead took her to an isolated area and raped her at gunpoint.
  • James Lee Perry, a wealthy oil dealer, lured teenage Ruby Atee Pigford away from home with the promise of a babysitting job. Instead of taking her to his house, he brought her to a nearby bar. Because she refused to go with him into the establishment, he beat her until she was unconscious, raped her, tied her to the bumper of his car, dragged her body through town,  and then dumped her outside her home.
  • Flossie Hardman, a black fifteen-year-old regularly babysat for Sam E. Green, who often drove her home afterward. One night he chose to rape her instead of taking her directly home.
  • Betty Jean Owens, a college student at FAMU, was raped at gunpoint seven times by four white men who had made a pact to “get a nigger girl” and have an “all night party.”
  • Eleven-year-old Ida Mae Holland was asked by a Mrs. Lawrence, a wealthy White woman, to babysit her granddaughter for a da. Since it was her birthday, Ida was promised a bonus if she came to the Lawrence home in the afternoon. After Ida completed her work, Mrs. Lawrence called her upstairs, informing her that her husband wanted to wish her a happy birthday. When Ida entered the room, she saw Mr. Lawrence lying in bed. Mrs. Lawrence flung back the sheets, exposing her nude husband, and placed Holland on top of the bed and left the room. Mr. Lawrence proceeded to rape her and afterward gave Ida Mae a five-dollar bill. (McGuire, 2010).

By the way, these events transpired at a time when America was “great”—a great hypocrite.

I consider it hypocritical to go to war for freedom and democracy overseas, using the help of People of Color, while allowing these atrocities and lynchings to go with a hint of justice.

These were the good ol’ days.

Race and racism are as American as good ol’ boys Thomas Jefferson and Jeff Davis.  These two shared more in common than having “Jeff” in their names by maintaining and promoting racism in their own ways.

When we live in willful ignorance of history, it is easy to draw from often-one-sided renderings that ignore historically marginalized groups.

On the other hand, when we expand our understanding of race and its intersecting identities beyond sheroes and heroes and White exceptionality, we can see the reality of a sordid and sickening history of patriarchy, perversion, with long-standing support of White people, including Christians.

Also, in this search, we can observe how White individuals who stood for justice typically defied the social norm.  Do you get it? The cultural and social norm for most Whites, and more heavily in different regions throughout the country, involved ignoring and maintaining the violence and perversion against Black women. The sacrifice of people of different backgrounds helped our government to start shifting from its greatness in hypocrisy.

Connecting Mental Illness to Racial History

The issue remains that, even considering mental illness, the denigration of Black womanhood still exists. Perhaps, we need to expand the ways we take up “mental illness” as it relates to violence against Black women.

From the perspective of historical legacy, what counts as mentally ill? It seems like mentally ill people would gather in masses with their children to watch lynchings. It looks like mentally ill people would try to rape a young Melba Pattillo because of school integration.

Yet, these were considered normal behaviors and not a mental illness.  Are we rearticulating an old norm of dismissing violent acts of racism and sexism against Black women and girls, a through the lens of mental illness?  I do not have the answers. However, I think it is a critical discussion worth having.

Mental illness needs to be considered in violent crimes along with how these narratives might interplay with the alleged perpetrator’s condition. I want us to consider how mental illness does not automatically make a crime more random or less racially motivated. Again, the challenges facing the United States begs for a justice system where the ignorance of contemporary invisible workings of race and racism no longer informs an oversimplified and dualistic view of the human behavior in violent crimes.

People with mental illness can still swim in the same narratives received from family, institutions, media, and community about different races.

Like most of us, chances are, people with mental illness received useful messages and problematic ones about race. Also, like a number of us, these messages show up in often taken for granted norms that remain mostly unpacked. It is dangerous to assume that mentally ill people are not socialized around race and gender because people’s lives are on the line.

Re-envisioning Justice

I invite us to consider “random,” “mental illness simultaneously,” and “race” in our justice system and our own standpoints.

Instead of taking up these crimes as either-or, we would weigh these constructs together and look at the intersections of their possible influence in the violent crimes.

The colorblind rhetoric that separates criminal motives into this random versus racially motivated divide presumes alleged perpetrators do not see race unless public evidence exist of racist language use and actions. It works to undo the progress made through a silent death by a thousand cuts through court cases, legislation, and the collective impact of individual daily choices of people in the United States.

Although, I levy a critique of contemporary race relations in the U.S., I am thankful that the government has shifted to doing more to protect all of its citizens, not just White people. The swift arrest of Cowell,  is a far cry from how a scenario would have played out in the past. Admittedly, given our poor history, we have a low bar.

If the only way we can prove racism is to actually catch someone saying or writing, “I hate ABC people” or actively participating in a hate group, then we are protecting all the people who do well to keep their supposed kinder form of bigotry under wraps.

Because race is interwoven within the fabric of U.S. society, ignoring the often-modern covert workings of race helps to maintain and perpetuate systemic and inequities.

As a result, I suggest we evaluate how alleged perpetrators think and negotiate race with other identity constructs, such as gender within their lives. This evaluation applies to intra-racial crimes. If a person murders someone of the same race, I suggest that it is critical to explore how their expectations, behaviors, and beliefs about their race and gender influenced them.

We can assume that people are innocent until proven guilty and simultaneously consider how identities such as race and gender are involved in, specific to this matter, violent crimes.

To move from an either-or to a more complex and robust social analysis informing criminal behavior requires more effort and it holds all of us to a higher degree of accountability in our everyday lives.

If we made the time to look throughout history  to review the heavy-handed prosecution of Black people and bloodthirsty mob justice, not just in the South, but also the North, I would hope after becoming better informed, more of us would think twice before regurgitating talking points about “anti-police” and “communism” from a popular conservative pundit. By the way, “communism” card is not new.

Black women have been protesting and standing for ourselves, for Black people, and to call the United States into a higher place for centuries.

I see hope in what was once a primarily Black woman cause has spread to diverse people. That is, the cause of Black women is a cause for all of us.  It takes more than People of Color to live self-empowered lives to help realize a free society. Although more White people continue to raise the standard, it takes leaders of institutions, from industry to school to religion to government to intentionally address and redress the wrongs. It takes individuals to lead in their own lives against racism.

A race and gender history so disturbing as the one in the United States does not go away by ignoring it and pretending it never happened. It haunts us in the hidden ways good people randomly preserve a racial hierarchy from work to play. As much as we try to ignore it or “colorblind” it away, the soul knows. The spirit knows.

Justice for Nia Wilson. Freedom for All.


McGuire, D. L. (2010). At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York, NY: Vintage Books.



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