I’m sure you have heard by now about the tragedy in Binghampton, New York this past week, when Jiverly Wong (a Vietnamese American of Chinese ancestry) shot and killed 14 people at the American Civic Association immigrant assistance center, then shot himself. I join others in offering my sincere condolences to the family of those killed and to all affected by these shocking events.
In trying to understand this tragedy from a sociological point of view, I am reminded of just how similar this latest incident of violence is to the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, when troubled Korean American student Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 students and professors before killing himself. Both cases involved a lone gunman who was personally very troubled and perhaps even mentally ill, who felt ridiculed and demeaned by others around him, and who had trouble fitting into mainstream American society.
And of course, both the killers were Asian American.
Inevitably, there will be those who will generalize these and other incidents that involved violence and murder committed by other Americans of Asian descent that have made the news in recent years, and conclude that Asian Americans are inherently socially awkward, emotionally and mentally unstable or inferior, and/or prone to violence. In fact, I felt the same kind of dread that I felt back in 2007 when I heard that the shooter in the Binghampton murders was identified as being of Asian descent.
Let’s put that unfortunate and misguided generalization to rest right now — as the official FBI statistics show, in 2007, in cases where the race/ethnicity of murder offenders is known, those classified as “Other” (the category that includes Asian Americans) represent only 2% of all murder offenders (keeping in mind that Asian Americans comprise 5% of the total U.S. population). More generally, research consistently shows that immigrants actually have lower crime rates than their U.S.-born counterparts (see Reid et al., (2005), “The Immigration-Crime Relationship.” Social Science Research 34:757-780).
Back to more realistic issues, from a sociological point of view, the most interesting difference between the Virginia Tech and Binghampton shootings is the race/ethnicity of the victims. At Virginia Tech, almost all of the victims were White and U.S.-born, whereas here in the Binghampton case, almost all of the victims were non-White and immigrants. Does this mean anything — is this difference significant?
Immigration (both undocumented and legal) is still a very hotly-debated and controversial issue in our society these days, and I’m sure there are some Americans who — consciously or unconsciously — downplay the significance of these Binghampton murder victims by rationalizing that as immigrants, they weren’t “real” or “legitimate” Americans anyway and that therefore, their lives are somehow devalued.
But I hypothesize that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not distinguish between the racial/ethnic identities of the murder victims and that as victims of a senseless tragedy, there is no distinction based on any status.
Ultimately, I actually think that it is this kind of unity of compassion regarding the victims of such tragedies that can serve to bring all Americans closer together. That is, as Americans and as human beings, we can hopefully all share in sympathizing with the families of these senseless shootings. Further, again as Americans, we probably also share the same worries about how the current economic recession will affect our lives and our future, a factor that, along with his apparent mental issues, may have contributed to pushing Jiverly Wong over the edge when he lost his job a few months ago.
In other words, even though we don’t contemplate shooting people after losing our jobs, many of us share the same worries when it comes to how we will pay our bills and save for our children’s future in these tough financial times. Through these kinds of difficulties, a few may unfortunately snap like Wong did, but many more will remember the humanity in us all and the need to help and support others like us so that we can all come out better in the end, like these examples below show us.