The Omar Thornton story is a sad and scary one. A 34-year old man is caught stealing beer at work. Upon being shown the video of his theft by management, he quietly agrees to resign. To everyone’s surprise, the man doesn’t plan to let the situation go so easily and pulls out a gun with every intention of using it.
Thornton murdered five people that day and eventually killed himself. He also seemed to feel that racism in the workplace is what drove him to kill. The last thing America needs is a racially-motivated killing after a hot summer that has busted at the seams with racial tension.
From most indications, Thornton wasn’t a hot head. He wasn’t a militant, loud or angry black man. He was, as some close to him would say, an “easy going” guy who simply went to work every day.
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But on this day, whatever snapped inside of Thornton’s mind turned him into a mass murderer and walking nightmare for everyone inside that factory.
Let’s take this one from the top: What Mr. Thornton did was clearly wrong. While we all find ourselves frustrated on the job, none us want to live in a world where anyone feels that homicide can be justified. No matter how poorly Thornton was treated, he should have dealt with his frustrations in a socially-acceptable manner, rather than ending human life to make his point.
But in our goal of having an honest discussion about this issue, there are two points that must be considered: First, I would have to say that nearly every black man in the work place has felt enough frustration to physically attack those who oppress him. Not necessarily enough anger to kill, but certainly enough anger to jump over a desk and get to “whoopin ass.” The same can be said for women who are getting their rear ends checked out at the copy machine or being disrespected when they try to get into the good old boy’s club. Secondly, given that we have an incentive to maintain a safe society, perhaps it makes sense for us to deal with institutionalized racism and sexism in an honest way, instead of simply hoping that those we mistreat are not crazy enough to harm us. While many of those affected by discrimination are willing to suffer in silence, there are likely thousands of Omar Thornton’s who could be pushed over the edge at any minute.
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When I became a professor, I saw scores of black scholars around America having their careers ruined due to the racism within academia. They’d dedicate their entire existence to playing the humiliating game of subservience, only to find that dirty tricks and a fundamentally undeniable racist power structure would almost always obstruct their progress. Some of the scholars, after losing their reason for being, also lost their minds: They would end up on a therapist’s couch, or walking around with enough rage inside them to smack an old lady upside the head.
Fortunately, I let go of any need for scholarly validation from historically racist institutions long ago, and this move was primarily to preserve my own sanity. I knew that by playing a game I couldn’t win, I risked giving someone else the power to affect the value with which I saw my own livelihood. But many of my colleagues were not so fortunate and ended up incredibly angry in the face of those who arrogantly believed that there was nothing the disgruntled worker could do about his/her frustration. This kind of overlooked, festering and unaddressed professional brutality has led to some incredibly ugly outcomes, including the mass shooting by the female Harvard educated professor at The University of Alabama Birmingham. It’s clear that her behavior was inappropriate, but this fact does not bring back the lives of those individuals who could have been saved in a more responsible workplace.
My point is that a mindless commitment to racial or gender-based oppression, without sufficient and socially-acceptable release valves, continues to make our society vulnerable to violence. There will always be a Lorena Bobbit looking to personally deal with her husband’s abuse by chopping off body parts in his sleep. There will always be an Omar Thornton who feels so hopeless about his own discrimination that he decides to bring weapons to work. While I am not sure of what Thornton experienced on the job, the fact that the man with no disciplinary problems felt discriminated against and chose to end lives as a result clearly signals that the concerns were deep and painful. While society must be protected from those who commit such heinous acts, we must also ensure that we do not constantly work to provoke them.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the book, “Black American Money.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here
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