Making a Murderer (Politically Profitable)

Racial Scapegoating, Immigration and the Exploitation of a Death in Iowa

It’s pretty much a collective mantra by now, recited by black folks whenever a horrible crime is announced anywhere in America, but before the identity of the perpetrator is known.

“Dear God, don’t let him be black.”

Indeed, it has become something of a punchline to a joke, albeit one that is only humorous in the most tragic of ways.

Knowing how readily crimes committed by those with surplus melanin come to be seen as connected to said melanin, black folk have learned to pray for whiteness as a modifier of any crime about which they hear on TV, in the hopes that they may gain respite from the disparaging gaze of white America, so often cast towards them for anything one of theirs might do.

And now, as the nation’s demographic browning proceeds apace — the source of so much angst from the likes of Laura Ingraham — a second stanza can perhaps be added to the race-based prayers of the non-white in times of tragedy: namely, Dear God, don’t let him be undocumented.

Even before the revelation that missing University of Iowa student, Mollie Tibbetts was apparently murdered by Cristhian Rivera — a Mexican national in the country illegally — anti-immigrant hysteria had already been disturbingly normalized by the perpetually overheated rhetoric of the president.

But whatever the political benefit of Trump’s previous harangues against “rapists and drug dealers” ostensibly pouring across the border (or the unintentional killing of Kate Steinle at the hands of an undocumented migrant who fired a gun on a San Francisco Pier) it’s hard to top the latest case for its exploitability in the service of opportunistic xenophobia.

With the vicious murder of Tibbetts, we have a conventionally attractive white woman chased down, killed, and disposed of like garbage in a small Midwestern town by the kind of guy who stars nightly in the fever dreams of those who chant “build that wall” at Trump rallies.

The politicization of the tragedy was almost immediate of course, no doubt in part to distract from the ongoing revelations of illegality and corruption at the heart of Trump’s inner circle, but also because the right is increasingly tethered to an unvarnished racial nationalism fueled by white fear.

To wit, Senator Tom Cotton who tweeted, “Mollie would be alive if our government had taken immigration enforcement seriously years ago.”

Well sure, perhaps. And by the same token, if Terry Melcher had thought more fondly of Charles Manson’s songwriting, Sharon Tate might still be with us too. But even if true, neither observation offers much in the way of comfort or relevance.

Ultimately all the “what ifs” about what might have been prevented if we’d just built the wall or gotten tougher on immigration does nothing for anyone except pundits and politicians. The uselessness of this kind of speculation is probably among the reasons why the Tibbetts family has blasted those who would use her death to excuse their bigotry. Even in their grief they have the class and foresight to realize that sometimes horrible things just happen, and all the retrospective thought experiments in the world aren’t worth the time it takes to formulate them.

After all, such mental gymnastics eventually devolve into an infinite regression of absurdist guesswork, and it’s a game anyone can play. So here’s my version:

If we’d had a policy to euthanize every other male child born in the U.S. over the last forty years, the crime rate would have plummeted, and tens of thousands of murder victims’ lives would have been spared given the disproportionate rate at which men kill. Oh, and given that for every white woman like Tibbetts who’s killed by a man of color there are between 4 and 5 others killed by white guys, just think how many such women we could have saved with this preventative policy, even if applied only to white men alone.

Yeah, somehow I’m guessing Tom Cotton wouldn’t much like that one.

But again, none of this really helps things now. We can’t replay the past. As for the future, clamoring for the wall because that would stop killings like that of Tibbetts is shortsighted on multiple levels.

Anyone who really thinks a wall on the southern border is feasible has never been to the border. Even if it could be built there would be multiple places along the length of it that would remain unsecured, and it’s not as if there would be armed guards posted every few feet to stop those attempting to scale it.

Oh, and tunnels.

Additionally, there are already about 11 million people in the country who are undocumented. Although only a small percentage are likely to commit a violent crime, the wall obviously can’t do much to stop them now that they’re here. And since you typically won’t know who the violent ones are until after their crime is committed, the notion that you can prevent them from victimizing folks ahead of time presumes you can find them, round them up, and send them all out of the country. So pretty much cattle cars and night-raids and other totalitarian tactics that would render America undesirable as a place not only for immigrants but anyone else enamored of liberty.

In short, complete protection from tragedies like this, even were it possible, would require the forfeiture of anything approximating a free society. It would no doubt result in the profiling of millions of people who merely speak Spanish, have brown skin, or “appear” foreign to the self-appointed monitors of Americanism. If the Trump cultists think this is a price worth paying (as they likely would) it can only owe to a hatred of national principles even greater than their contempt for brown folks.

The irony being, not only would such an approach sacrifice American values but also the very safety for which so many clamor. For as it turns out, communities with higher percentages of so-called “illegals” actually have lower violent crime rates than communities with fewer of them. Not that pesky things like facts matter much to the Trumpkins, for whom the presence of signs in Spanish is proof that the apocalypse draws nigh.

Nor, for that matter, consistency, as we wouldn’t see comparable group-blaming rants from politicians or White Twitter if the racial dynamics in the instant case were less useful for the right. If Mollie Tibbetts’s killer had been an Iowa farm boy, fresh off an 8-day meth binge or strung out on Fentanyl, no one would be talking about it, the president wouldn’t care, and none would be arguing for a race-specific crackdown on corn-fed Lutherans from Cedar Falls.

Indeed if the racial dynamics had been different — like a white man killing a black woman, as happened to Nia Wilson on a transit platform in Oakland — Trumplandia wouldn’t be saying anything about it at all. So too with a white guy that kills his whole family in Colorado. Every bit as tragic, but nowhere near as politically serviceable, and so…crickets.

With the perfidious politicization of Mollie Tibbetts’s death, Trump and his zombified minions insult the memory of the dead — who, according to those who knew her would be horrified by the misuse of her death to serve a racist agenda — and cast a pall over the nation’s future. They seek to ensure a safety that can never be wholly vouchsafed, but the pursuit of which will trample what remains of the decency that we’ve long insisted made our nation special, even when we didn’t follow through, and even when we violated our precepts time and again.

But now we have millions who would sacrifice all of that — due process, equal protection and the compassion that recognizes the value of human beings no matter their place of origin — all in the name of a safety they will never enjoy, no matter how many they harm, detain, deport, imprison or kill.

What they desire is an American version of Lebensraum no less contemptibly inhumane than the original. And like its predecessor, it is equally deserving of being denied to all those who seek it.

I’m an antiracism educator/author. My latest book is Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020). I post audio at

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