Wednesday, December 26, 2012

White-on-White Crime: Domestic Terrorism Widens its Reach

Preface: I haven't had time to verify statistics on whether, in fact, white-on-white crime as a form of massacre is new in the US. In this case, I'm trying to think of what it would mean to add that to our repertoire of signs of social illness. 

In the days since Newtown, I have been looking for understanding about the apparent link between white males and mass violence in recent US history. Circa 1994, when Newt Gingrich helmed the Republican Revolution that gave the party control of Congress for the first time in decades, pundits described "angry white males" as the voting bloc responsible for the shift.  At the time, portraits of this constituency focused on their fire-breathing resentment.

At present, the mood seems elegiac. In the grips of this lament for the passing of what Fox News describes as "your father's America," a strange consensus is appearing across the political spectrum. (Follow this link to read David Brooks and Gail Collins of the New York Times in agreement that the "white working class" bears the brunt of economic inequality--an accord that emerges in spite of the fact that unemployment rates for blacks and Latinos are in many regions, including their own, as much as double that of whites).

If my previous post was about our practiced exercise of sympathy on behalf of white boys, this outpouring of feeling across lines of region, income, and region would seem to confirm my observations.

One comment in particular struck me while searching the internet. I find it a straightforward explanation of why gun sales spike when Democrats (not least President Obama) take the White House. I would prefer not to reduce a complex political and economic project to the emotion of "race hatred." After all, race hatred without voting power and firearms wouldn't concern me much. Besides, almost no one white admits to "hating" nonwhite Americans anymore. So, to get away from sanctimonious condemnations of hate-filled racists (always imagined in the South and the Midwest), let's call it the marriage of anti-federalism and white national masculinity. Said one commenter on Daily Kos (notable for his lack of inflammatory language):
"I think the extreme emotions worked up by the fear of gun restrictions plays into a sense of powerlessness felt by most working class guys I know. (I'm a blue collar gun owning hunter, and I even have a diesel pickup). Our wages have gone down our whole lives, a doctor's visit could mean losing our houses, ethnicities and languages we don't understand are mainstream." 
The writer's gesture toward "ethnicities and languages we don't understand" strongly suggests the "working class guys" he imagines are white Americans. If one really stretches, the group might include non-immigrant blacks and English-speaking Latinos. The way he makes "working class" identical to "white citizen" is something I've addressed elsewhere. In the process of this relatively mild and seemingly innocuous exercise in nativism, he makes two moves I find confounding. First, he insists that national and linguistic Others have become "mainstream." Outside of the most major cities, where can one use any language other than English to sell or obtain goods and services? For that matter, when was the last major film or weekly television program that featured a cast that wasn't predominantly white and that didn't speak in English? The writer's sense of loss is notably disproportionate to the actual loss.

Second, there are those amazing commas in the last sentence, linking economic issues of wages and health care to the aforementioned sense of lost dominance in the realm of culture and representation. It would seem as if, for this frustrated white male figure, the loss of cultural power is connected, in some inarticulable but deeply felt way, to depressed wages and soaring health care costs. From within this logic, two solutions present themselves: 1) oppose immigration, affirmative action, welfare and other expenditures allegedly earmarked for non-natives; 2) stock up on guns to prevent the federal government from extracting property for redistributive purposes.

It barely requires saying that the image of federal imposition in mind relates to those two great impositions on white property: emancipation and desegregation, both implemented with the conspicuous intervention of federal troops.

The US's original contract with its first citizens (white males without any property qualification) was that they would have access to property (the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, manhood rights, manly wage, etc). When I try to think of what goes through the mind of the perpetrators of gun violence, I think of "aggrieved entitlement." Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel describe it as "a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back." This seems endemic to manhood in societies with private property, for in them, male psychic investment in property is inviolable, from his own person outward to all he claims. Think of how much it hurts--truly hurts--to have our "things" taken from us. Consider that the fundamental property in this country--the one that qualifies you for all others--has been white skin. Indians were construed as having no property claims on the land; black people were made to understand they had no propriety over their bodies or those of their children. The maleness of private property is evident in the long road to overturning the rules of coverture and establishing the legal principle that women--and not their fathers or husbands--are actually the victims when a rape occurs. Given this history, the gentleman I quoted would seem to be mourning the social and economic value historically accorded first exclusively and then disproportionately to white men

To be more specific, aggrieved entitlement turns on the directly proportional relationship between anger and loss. It would seem to me that in order to justify the outsized anger, the constituency has had to exaggerate the loss. Usurping the position of historically disarmed racial subordinates, white nationalists have cast themselves as under attack by a meddling Federal government. But the invasions have become more and more abstract, from Sherman's destructive march to the sea, through the use of Federal troops to enforce desegregation, to the current "theft" of taxes for allegedly redistributive purposes. It should also be noted that Rush Limbaugh's alarmist claims that "flash mobs" of marauding black teenagers are systematically targeting whites during the Obama presidency is a transparent remix of that first blockbuster film, Birth of a Nation. In this narrative framework, black criminals and their Federal allies are all bent on one thing: taking the white man's country--or his pride of place in it, which amounts to the same thing. Rather than cede (or even secede), those caught in the grip of loss and anger with no proper target would seem to have become domestic terrorists. From Indian Removal to rape and lynching, domestic terrorism is not new. But it does seem to me that white-on-white crime might be.

The fact that I think I understand the connections in their paranoid fantasy brings me no closer to undoing it. The feelings of attachment at play here are crucial and, potentially, unfixable for most people over the age of 24 (when the brain's prefrontal cortex finishes its formation).

In the present, stricter gun control laws would seem one viable option for prevention of future massacres. But is that about cutting off the supply or rounding up weapons people already have? Both are likely to stoke more resentment in this anti-federalist camp. Confiscation, especially, tends to put me back in mind of Waco and Ruby Ridge. I fear that, for the present, we are, as the expression goes, royally screwed.

From Christy Wampole, Assistant Professor of French at Princeton.
The stereotypical image [of the violent black teen committing street crimes]... does not leave room for that other kind of murderer, the one who plans and executes a calculated, non-spontaneous large-scale death spree.
The angry white man has usurped the angry black man.
I would argue that maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline. And while those of us who are not male or white have enjoyed some benefits from their decline, the sort of violence and murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary will continue to occur if we do not find a way to carry them along with us in our successes rather than leaving them behind....
From the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and onward, young men – and young white men in particular – have increasingly been asked to yield what they’d believed was securely theirs. This underlying fact, compounded by the backdrop of violent entertainment and easy access to weapons, creates the conditions for thousands of young men to consider their future prospects and decide they would rather destroy than create....
For those of us who belong to a demographic that is doing increasingly better, a trained empathic reflex toward those we know to be losing for our gains could lead to a more deferential attitude on our part and could constitute an invitation for them to stay with us.
In this (to my mind) astonishing passage, Wampole describes the last few decades of mass shooting (executed primarily but not exclusively by white males) as, in effect, an ominous warning:

Return to your former deference (or, at least, suppress your sass and backtalk) or face the consequences. Beware, for today's victims will not be the beaten wife or the odd lynchee. Today's weapons assure that the victims will be larger in number and more indiscriminate in terms of social position.

Despite my intense objection to Wampole's mismeasuring of white male losses and advocacy of deference (?!?!) at this late date, I think there is something suggestive in her post: the comparison of black street violence and white mass violence. What can be made of a comparison of "black-on-black" and "white-on-white" crime?

It would appear that the aforementioned threats of gun-hoarders includes a partial democratization of violence. Private appropriation of the state's monopoly on legitimate violence has come to the spaces where it wasn't supposed to happen: rural America, small-town America, sleepy hamlets, affluent schools. Rather than a white male targeting his own spouse, children, and nearby racial subordinates--the common practice up to the 1960s--is violence now increasingly executed upon race- and gender-compeers?

It's difficult for me to say that such violence is senseless, derives only from mental illness and not at all from mentally distressing--even unlivable--social demands. Given all the railing against black people, gays, and immigrants, though, I would expect its targets (real and threatened) to belong primarily to those who were supposed to be subordinates but who have allegedly cut in line at the national buffet.

It might be that turning on one's neighbors, exacting punishment on those in proximity than on more remote and abstract powers, is the most feasible and gratifying mode of venting frustration. Certainly, that would appear to be the case in inner-city riots the world over.  The result of our entrenched segregation of residences and schools is that not only black people and Latinos (of whom we expect it) but also whites (whom we don't) are more likely to direct violence at members of their own group. Where the race riots of nineteenth and early twentieth centuries featured disgruntled whites terrorizing competing nonwhite workers and businesspeople, the resulting white flight to the suburbs and restrictive covenants mean that there isn't a sufficient concentration of offending racial others nearby.

Certainly, police and corrections officers (among others) can take out their frustrations on female and nonwhite citizens who do not defer sufficiently. But it would seem that other white people have few if any opportunities to do so anymore. Therefore, until something is done to address the issues of financial and physical well-being that plague the poor and middle-class of all colors, it would appear that "white-on-white" violence can join the more familiar epidemics of "black-on-black" and "brown-on-brown" as violent crimes where prohibited rage meets opportunity to inflict pain.



  2. I'm not sure that Race can be used as an explanatory variable. 1) gender could be used for a stronger association, but this kind of correlations generally implies an ecological fallacy, in other words statistics cannot be used to predict an individual behaviour through social variables; 2) the category of white is also problematic, as Lanza wasn't exactly a WASP. He was Italian and Catholic.


    1. My goal was to pivot (and I may not have turned elegantly enough) from whites who have engaged in mass killing to those who advocate the stockpiling of guns and other weapons. Is there a relationship between the two? If so, what is it?

      Even if there is no relation, my primary interest is in the stockpilers and militia types, not the unaffiliated individual. That means I am interested in a Timothy McVeigh case. But I'm also interested in whether or not the increased demand for the right to carry concealed weapons (to face down some imaginary nonwhite criminal) will be turned on whites as much as it was and continues to be against insubordinate white women and nonwhites of both sexes.

      As to your second point, whiteness, to my mind, is not an inherent trait deriving from ethnicity, such that WASPs have it in the US and others automatically do not. As I defined it above, whiteness is the product of claims in the US national community. My concern above was less Lanza than with white gun stockpilers. I am not trying to predict individual behaviors by race; I have long been opposed to the practice (See ).

      So, all told, I am interested in gun advocacy as a large-scale right-wing movement, as a reflection of racial nationalism. I am not interested in the individual case. Thank you for helping me to clarify, as the invocation of Newtown could certainly distort my intention.