Whiteness Doesn’t Cause Mass Shootings

Law-enforcement officials continue their investigation at First Baptist Church during the early-morning hours of November 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Yesterday a gunman, Devin Patrick Kelly, killed 26 people at the church and wounded many more when he opened fire during a Sunday service. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Yesterday’s horrific massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which 26-year-old Devin P. Kelley killed 26 people and injured many others at the town’s First Baptist Church, has spurred the tragically familiar call from Americans begging for politicians to take some action — any action — in response to what feels like an epidemic of mass shootings. Today, many are arguing for enhanced gun-control legislation, perhaps legislation which would take into account what appears to be an important connection between domestic violence and these sorts of acts.

But in a Democracy Now! segment from earlier today, George Ciccariello-Maher, a political science professor at Drexel University, made a different case. He argued that while it’s important to examine the policy ramifications of Kelley’s murders, including the possibility that “targeted gun control for domestic violence [offenders]” or similar policies might prove effective, the bigger conversation should be about the fact that he was white.

As he explained (and I’m splicing together two different responses to Amy Goodman’s questions here):

You know, Trump makes hay out of the fact that white men, in particular, feel as though they’re the victims of this society, despite being in absolute control of it. And this is something that is powerfully dangerous, and it’s why we’re not seeing only the rise in violent attacks, more generally, and the rise of far-right movements, but we’re certainly seeing, you know, clearly, sort of some very serious incidents of mass violence, as well … [W]hiteness is never seen as a cause, in and of itself, of these kinds of massacres, of other forms of violence, despite the fact that whiteness is a structure of privilege and it’s a structure of power, and a structure that, when it feels threatened, you know, lashes out. And so, that’s the kind of thing that we really need to think about, not only why is it — and I think there’s a lot of attention to the fact that we demonize often Muslims or, you know, other people of color when these attacks occur. The far right, of course, jumps on any violence by people of color — and yet, you know, doesn’t want to talk about the real deep structures of white supremacy in our society, and again, not just the fringe, not just the Nazi movements, but what people are going through every day and what it is that is driving people to these kinds of situations, where they feel so entitled to dominance that when that’s questioned, they can explode in these very, very unpredictable ways[.] [emphasis mine]

Let’s be crystal clear: We don’t know for sure, at this early juncture, why Kelley did what he did. We do not know whether he did it out of a sense of entitlement, or whether Trump’s election helped spur him to commit that heinous act. We don’t know any anything about his motives, in fact, other than snippets that point specifically to an apolitical attack carried out by a violently abusive man: The attack appears to have been connected to a dispute with his mother-in-law, according to authorities, and Kelley had been previously “convicted of assaulting his wife and breaking his infant stepson’s skull.” Yet Ciccariello-Maher made several causal claims about Kelley’s motives solely on the basis of his whiteness. He also complained, explicitly, that “whiteness is never seen as a cause, in and of itself, of these kinds of massacres, of other forms of violence” — suggesting it should be.

Ciccariello-Maher’s claims sit comfortably within an emerging subgenre of post-mass-shooting punditry. As Daniel Engber noted in Slate after the Las Vegas attacks, ‘The Huffington Post published [actor Cole] Sprouse’s tweets as a ’Powerful Take on Whiteness and Mass Shootings.’ An article in Elle called the link between white men and mass shootings ‘a general rule’ and proposed that ‘our refusal to confront toxic white male violence is why this problem will metastasize.’ The progressive news site ThinkProgress said that ‘when we talk about mass shootings, we are talking about white men.’ Newsweek wondered if ‘white men commit mass shootings out of a sense of entitlement.’ A CNN opinion piece bemoaned the fact that ‘America has silently accepted the rage of white men.’”

This may be an attractive, tidy take for explaining mass shootings — one guaranteed to generate controversy and clicks. It’s also an extremely inaccurate, overly reductive, and misleading approach to a serious societal problem. People should really stop making such a glib and substance-free argument.

At the most basic level, they should stop making it because it stands on a very rickety foundation. It isn’t even clear that whites do commit mass shootings in quantities disproportionate to their overall demographic representation. Engber, an adept detective when it comes to evaluating social-scientific ideas, made a strong case in his piece that this is simply a “myth” that sprang forth after James Holmes committed the Aurora movie-theater massacre, in 2012. According to him, there’s just no evidence this is true — it isn’t even clear where the idea comes from, exactly. And if whites don’t commit a disproportionate percentage of mass shootings anyway, it makes little sense to posit whiteness as a meaningful causal factor worth examining on its own.

But the full damage done by these whiteness-violence claims goes deeper. And to explain this, it’s important to explain why some people are making these arguments in the first place. When Ciccariello-Maher and others posit whiteness as an explanation for violence or other bad behavior on the part of whites, they are, in part, offering a rejoinder to the pernicious idea that blackness can explain such behavior on the part of blacks. As many scholars have shown, perhaps most comprehensively the Harvard University professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad in his excellent book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, this idea has a long, ugly history.

In his book, Muhammad explains that a large subset of white pundits and politicians and social scientists have always argued that black crime is essentially different from white crime. In the 19th century, such arguments were primarily biological — “experts” would point to the supposedly differently-shaped skulls (or some other physical feature) of black people as proof that they couldn’t be expected to act in the civilized manner of whites. As these explanations fell somewhat (but not entirely) out of favor around the turn of the century, they were replaced by cultural explanations — there was some element of black culture or family life that rendered black people much more dangerous and criminologically inclined than white people.

Frequently, statistics were mangled to support these highly dubious claims, and frequently, too, high crime rates in white neighborhoods — particularly white immigrant ones, which were sometimes riven with social problems — were ignored or explained away. Some social scientists took pride in the claim that they had “proven,” with then-fancy new statistics and data techniques, that blacks just couldn’t control themselves the way whites could. “By taking a broad statistical view of the field, it will be possible to found our conclusions on much surer ground,” exulted Nathaniel Shaler — a white-supremacist paleontologist and geologist who was an unfortunately frequent public commentator on racial issues in late 19th-century America — in The Atlantic in 1890.

What all these ideas about black crime have in common is that they essentialize — they claim that acts of violence can be explained, in a meaningful way, by the race of the perpetrator: Black people are like this, and white people are not, which is why blacks commit more crimes. Ciccariello-Maher is making an argument of this same form, but swapping out one race for another: White people are entitled [or whatever] in a way members of other races are not, which can explain why they shoot up churches and concerts.

Now, whiteness-violence arguments certainly aren’t as damaging, and don’t have the historical baggage and body count, of blackness-violence arguments. It would be silly to argue that Ciccariello-Maher’s view is “racist” in the same way as, say, Shaler’s views were. But that doesn’t make theories about whiteness-violence any more intelligent or helpful. Whiteness-violence arguments, too, take a very complicated question — who commits crimes and why — and shaves down that question’s complexity until all that is left is the identity of the perpetrator.

It isn’t just that these “explanations” don’t, in fact, explain everything. They also fail on an important rhetorical level by reopening the door to the same harmfully reductive arguments about crime that progressives and minority scholars and activists have done so much work to tear down. Implicit in Ciccariello-Maher’s argument is that if one group commits a disproportionate percentage of a certain type of crime, it’s reasonable to assume that something essential about that group can explain what’s going on. This is not a road progressives — or anyone who cares about understanding crime in a substantive, scientifically informed way, for that matter — should want to go down.

Let’s say, for a minute, that Engber is wrong and mass shooters are disproportionately white. If this is reason enough to claim that their race is an important causal factor, then a conservative interlocutor could easily jump in and say, “Oh, well then I guess blackness is causing black crime, since black people commit violent crimes at higher rates.” That is a real discrepancy, after all — it’s one that can be explained by socioeconomic factors, including institutionalized racism and urban neglect on the part of predominately white American power structures, but it’s also easily exploited by racists as “proof” of the sorts of claims spotlighted in Muhammad’s book. Or what about Europe? In those European countries that have been hit by recent mass-casualty attacks, those attacks have been overwhelmingly committed by Muslims. Does it follow from this that we need to talk about “Muslim culture,” or that Muslims are essentially violent in a way Christians and Jews are not?

It does not. Progressive discourse on crime and race has devoted huge amounts of time and intellectual energy to proving, compellingly, that these essentialist accounts are worthless if we really want to understand why some people rob and rape and kill and others do not. Why should we abandon this principle? The way to atone for yesterday’s pernicious, racist narratives about crime is to abandon them in favor of smarter and more informed accounts, not to simply tweak them so they apply to majority rather than minority groups.

Whiteness Doesn’t Cause Mass Shootings