The media is missing the point in its sympathetic coverage of white male killers, the biggest threat to women, people of color, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people … all of us.
America: Call the missionaries!
Call the shrinks!
Call the craniometrists!
Call the criminologists and the FBI profilers!
Call the anthropologists and the sociologists!
Call the entire academic Calvary for Christ’s sake!
It’s time to do a Moynihan Report on how white parenting is breeding so many frustrated white boys who grow up to stockpile weapons and kill innocent people when life gets hard.
We need a whole new field of whiteness research because journalists, activists, and scholars have largely overlooked how white parenting is ground zero for public and racialized violence in this country. We’ve made very little to no headway with reforms because we’re obsessed with focusing on adult attitudes and behaviors and not their root causes.
There is nothing more dangerous in the United States than a white male who has expected to succeed and finds himself falling behind. Or a white male who has power and feels his prerogatives are being challenged from every direction by women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and their capitalist overlords.
White men are flipping the fuck out and this is a public health and national security crisis!
“As a matter of public safety, we need to ask why so many mass shooters are white men and boys,” says Robin Bernstein who is a history professor at Harvard University and author of the book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. Bernstein says that we need to ask, “What is American culture teaching white boys, who become white men, about what they are entitled to and how they should express their anger?”
According to a growing number of studies, white men are stockpiling guns at an alarming rate. Data shows that Americans who are most “emotionally and morally attached” to their guns are 65 percent male and 78 percent white. Why? Because demographically speaking, white folks are facing a genetic winter and fear being overtaken by people of color. Recall the shrill cries of those neo-Nazi tiki-torchbearers in Charlottsville who declared: “We will not be replaced.”
Tommy J. Curry, a professor of philosophy and Africana Studies at Texas A&M University, explains that this racial-dystopia forecast by the looming threat of demographic inferiority to Latinos and the ever-looming threat of Black population growth has created a racial reactionism among white men.
“It needs to be stated that this is not a problem with white masculinity, because white women have historically been just as violent as white men. They have organized and participated in lynchings, rape, and organized terrorism against immigrant and Black populations throughout the 20th century,” Curry says. “What the media is overlooking is that white childhood has been conditioned by the narrative that white people are superior, and by effect will enjoy a superior economic and political position to Black and Brown groups in America. For poorer white Americans, their inability to access this racial legacy due to their economic declination and their fear of being overrun by non-white populations makes violence appear to be their only resort.
Last month the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of white-supremacist hate groups remain on the rise in the U.S. In 2015 the number stood at 892. In 2016 the number rose to 917. The SPLC reported that the number of neo-Nazi groups grew from 99 to 121, anti-Muslim groups grew from 101 to 114, and anti-immigrant groups grew from 14 to 22, attributing the growth to racially divisive language and actions by Donald Trump.
White men are also “anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market and beset by racial fear,” wrote Jeremy Adam Smith in a recent piece for Scientific American about race and gun ownership. “In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisis in meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story—one in which they are once again the heroes.” Or, I would argue, a new story where white men are once again masters of everybody else’s bodies and destinies.
Angry white men who espouse racial hatred and hostility to government have taken a deadly toll on Americans over the last decade. These extremists are a bigger threat to U.S. citizens than ISIS. They’ve killed cops, people of color, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people, and random civilians.
Given the hard evidence of this national threat, it is past time to look at triggers in the socialization of white boys, including the most mediocre who are led to expect a dominant position in society and an automatic path to success, with no ability to accommodate or adapt when that dominant position is undermined. But our corporate media refuses to talk about the white family as the real root of the problem each time some white male who is mad at the world snaps. We saw this most recently with the coverage of a home-schooled Christian, unemployed college dropout serial-bomber who terrorized a whole city for weeks and left two people dead and four other victims wounded.
In his taped confession before he blew himself up, Mark Conditt described himself as a “psychopath” who felt no remorse for the killings. So why are investigators and the media going to such great lengths to say that Mark Conditt was not motivated by terrorism or race hate? Why are they scratching their heads trying to gain clarity about his motives? His friends and family, according to them, have described him as “quiet,” “normal,” “nerdy,” and “kind”—qualities, together with “Christian” and “lone wolf” and other similar descriptors appear the textbook recipe for a lyncher and a mass murderer. If you look at U.S. history, being a normal white Christian means expecting white Christian supremacy, which is eroding a little bit every day. White males now find themselves in competition with other groups and increasing numbers of them can’t assume their place in the middle class, much less among the elite.
The media has gone out of its way to stick to the script when there was evidence that Conditt grew up among Christian survivalist circles and was himself involved, according to a friend, with a Righteous Invasion of Truth (RIOT), a fringe group of evangelicals “into weapons and stuff.”
“White families are being ruptured culturally and economically. As poor white men’s educational and health outcomes are approaching that of racialized groups, there is a withering of the white nuclear family lead by white men. The inability of poor white men to attain education and employment opportunities comparable to past generations has challenged their older notions of patriarchy and racial superiority,” Curry says.
Other scholars I spoke with said that the media uses perpetrator-sympathetic language and framing in the construction of headlines about white male killers. In stories from the Washington Post, ABC news, and the Associated Press the Austin bomber was described as “smart and kind,” “quiet and introverted,” “polite” “computer geek” who was “frustrated by life.” Unarmed Black and brown men and children killed by cops are thugs, deviants, “no angels” and terrorists, and so are the parents who gave birth to and raised them, especially those with a criminal history. But white men are simply troubled and come from good Christian homes—and just took a bad, sometimes surprising turn.
“Parenting is often designated as a private, personal realm. The distribution of that privacy, however, is affected by race and class,” says Bernstein. She also says that the parenting practices of Black adults are routinely publicly criticized. But the parenting practices of white, middle-class adults is often assumed to be a matter of choice for individual families. “The media have not criticized white parents as white parents in the way that the media have, for decades, criticized black parents as black parents.”
“The media focuses on the symptoms of violence and struggles over how to label it. Were these just troubled young men or outright terrorists? The public is never allowed to make the connection between racial violence and the white family, the context of coercive violence these young men were raised in,” says Toby Rollo, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia whose research focuses on the politics of childhood in western societies.
The empathetic treatment given to white killers shouldn’t be surprising. That’s because in newsrooms across America, the overwhelming majority of the reporters, editors, and pundits are white men—somewhere between 65 and 90 percent depending on the type of outlet.
Rollo adds that the media tends to focus on the early adult years of these killers, skipping over their childhoods in what are almost always labeled “‘normal families.’ So, the media will observe that the perpetrator abused his girlfriend, or dabbled in white supremacy online, or abused drugs,” Rollo says. “But they never investigate the coercion and violence they internalized in the home. If we’re serious about understanding why young white men can become so violent, why wouldn’t we study how they are raised?”
The white-male-driven newsroom helps perpetuate this cycle of coverage, even at a time when they’re under scrutiny for biased reporting—publications that have set good examples, like the Washington Post, even succumbed, publishing articles that attempted to humanize and psychologize Conditt, to try and explain what made him so angry. Just as the media obsessively tries to understand the Trump voter, we’re seeing them spin their wheels as they hypothesize superficially about what motivated Conditt (really, now). How about ask the grieving families whose kids were murdered in cold blood by this coward?
So far the media strategy has been to ignore parenting and families to focus on more nefarious causes. The public doesn’t want to be told there is something wrong with the normal white family itself. This is why we have no real insight into the violence we see in the news. There are always articles on toxic masculinity or gun culture, which are treated like viruses communicated in schools and workplaces. Yet behind this stands the “normal” white family with all its unspoken violence.
The coercive parenting and socialization of white boys is central to understanding white supremacy and violence. If we’re serious about understanding why white men are violent and racist and buying so many guns, we need to invest even more time in studying how they became this way and creating policies around those studies?
A few stories have noted that Conditt attended a conservative Christian church but they argued that this doesn’t explain how or why he veered toward violence. Really bruhs? So, the only time that the media will ever focus on a murderer’s family life is when they are homeschooled. Again, though, there is never a focus on the coercion or violence children are subjected to at home and in religious spaces. It’s always about the instruction.
Rollo says that white boys don’t always grow up receiving overtly racist messages at home but are inevitably exposed to them later on. “Racism, fundamentalist religion, toxic masculinity, or white supremacy are often encountered by young men once they have left home. Highly accessible, these ideologies provide boys with a conduit through which to channel their frustration over a lack of mastery,” he says. “It provides meaning to experiences that seem otherwise meaningless. ‘Why am I so angry, full of resentment and unhappy all the time? Why am I abusive to the people I love, and mad at strangers? Why am I not in control of my life?”
Along comes radical religion, or radical patriotism, or white supremacy, or men’s rights advocates, or whatever with a ready-made map that can be used to navigate toward mastery: “Your feelings of weakness are because of women, or because of immigrants, or because of Black people, and so on. Often it’s whatever website they come across first that determines the particular brand of violent criminal they become.”
What Rollo means by “mastery” is the desire for strict control that children internalize when being raised by coercive parents. White male children are typical in that their bodies are controlled by adults in almost every respect, often under threat of corporal punishment at home and in schools. Once they become young men, however, they are driven to assert authority over their own bodies, to have mastery over their own lives, in order to possess control that was denied to them as children. But life is uncontrollable, and so they fail and in their desperation they seek mastery over other people’s bodies, sometimes resorting to coercion and violence. It is not uncommon for us to learn that these young men’s girlfriends and wives are their first victims—in fact, it’s become the status quo.
Many white men will feel their lives spiraling out of control, disordered and making no sense. In theses cases, ideologies such as white supremacy offer a convenient lens through which to understand their frustration. White supremacy tells failing white men that their problems ultimately stem from the uncontrolled bodies of Black people. White supremacy tells white men that the world will only be brought back under order when coercion or violence is used to control the bodies of other people.
If we’re really serious about gun reform, and concerned about violence and the resurgence of white supremacist aggression, then we must center the root problem: the white family. We should take our cue from Jewish scholars who examined German parenting after the Holocaust because they sought to understand the emergence of racism and genocidal violence. There was a brief moment after WWII, when the Jews who escaped the Holocaust said, Wait a second, it’s the draconian way that Germans were raised that made them into racist abominations. They set up a program of study at the Frankfurt School which found that white boyhood was central to understanding Nazism and violence and they identified political racism and violence as resulting from authoritarian parenting.
Their approach was called critical theory, because it looked critically not just at power in politics but power at home, in the family, in culture more generally. They discovered that traditional child-rearing practices in Germany inculcated children with what they would come to refer to as the “Authoritarian Personality” characterized by a proclivity for racist, sexist, and xenophobic hierarchies and violence. But then it got swept aside in favor of discussions about adult prejudices and ideologies and the shift from childrearing to adult attitudes marked the end of the study of violence in the “normal white family.”
As Curry notes, “Violence against Blacks, be it in the form of white vigilantism, or the targeted terrorism of the bomber in Austin, is an attempt to protect and restore white people’s demographic advantage. Like Dylann Roof’s proclamation that Black men are raping women, or James Jackson’s belief that Black men are dating all the white women, the media continues to ignore how the fear of losing the racial white unit is being socialized into children and acted upon by parents who believe they are now poor whites because immigrants, Blacks, and Mexicans are changing America.”
The alt-right gives white Americans a rallying call, a belief that the restoration of racial superiority can ameliorate their economic faltering by cleansing the country of their inferior racialized competitors. The intergenerational failure of white supremacy is being passed on to their children as racial resentment.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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