Thursday, February 21, 2013

White, Male, Privileged, and Not Racially Marked: NOVA Explores the Mind of the (White) Rampage Killer

NOVA's "Mind of a Rampage Killer" offered a very thorough exploration of the relationship between the brain, biochemistry, and male violence. It is also part of a very necessary conversation about the relationship between politics, guns, and public health. Mind of a Rampage Killer was also an example of the problematic phenomenon where Whiteness, and in particular White Masculinity, remains unmarked, invisible, and unnamed.

We have have talked about the relationship between White Masculinity and mass shootings here on We Are Respectable Negroes a great deal. In the aftermath of the Aurora and Newtown massacres, the challenging (for some) observation that white men are grossly over-represented among spree shooters--yet, this obvious fact goes little discussed--was also picked up by the national media.

While the Nova special does some good work, it is also a rich and profound example of the white racial frame in practice.

NOVA's narrative humanizes the adolescent white male spree shooter by discussing the motivations which drive their behavior. The Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown murderers are troubled souls whose behavior could be understood, and perhaps even prevented, if their parents, other adults, or medical caregivers picked up on the warning signs.

In the middle of the documentary, it also offers up an explanation for why spree shooters commit their wanton violence: many of them are frustrated, angry, and are desperate for attention. The world is theirs; however, these children of privilege feel frustrated, put upon, bullied and marginalized. This is almost precisely the language of "aggrieved entitlement" that William Hamby discussed in his controversial essay, "Connecticut Shooting, White Males, and Mass Murder."

NOVA offers no acknowledgement of that fact, or how race could be central to the story of mass shooting violence, as opposed to invisible in it.

The NOVA special also makes good use of the language which is routinely used to idealize "normal" white domesticity. These mass shooters come from "tight-knit" communities. They are "good kids" who somehow went "wrong."

The "our" kids "next door" is a use of language which is rarely marked or identified as wholly subjective, and an example of how the universal "I" legitimates and normalizes a very particularly narrow type of Whiteness--so powerful this social construct is, that it is operative even in discussions of the maladaptive and deviant white masculinity common to killers such as Adam Lanza and James Holmes.

Moreover, how often are the violent behaviors of inner city black youth explored, with soul-searching, and efforts to understand their mental health? Not often.

People of color are pathological and criminal; white youth who kill people by the dozens are to be understood and reflected upon. White society asks, "how and why could people like "us" do such a thing?" The Other is deviant by nature and their crimes are an example of their real, true, self. In all, for those not in the in-group (e.g. black and brown folks, Arabs and Muslims) "bad culture" yields an expected outcome.

NOVA does include some brown and black youth in its visit to a prison the Mendota Mental Health Institute. However, in the narrative their crimes are implicitly elevated to the same scale and scope as those of the overwhelmingly white, male spree shooters featured in the earlier segments. The former are presented as an example of the same general cognitive, emotional, and biological phenomena which perhaps can explain the motivations of the latter group.

That move is an act of intellectual dishonesty by the directors, editors, and writers of NOVA that also furthers the white racial frame and the normativity of Whiteness.

Why would I make such a strong claim?

"Mind of a Rampage Killer" could have easily explored some obvious questions.

The shooters in the first part of the show, the communities in which they live, and their parents, are almost exclusively white. The young people NOVA is profiling and interviewing at the Mendota Youth Center are all black.

Is there something systematically different about the behavior of the white spree shooters than the young people of color being featured here? What do we make of the fact that the mass shooters discussed in the documentary, and also in society more generally, are almost all white and male? If the claims about brain structure and cognitive processes are true, then why does one cohort of young white men commit this type of crime at rates far exceeding that of other groups? Does this fact undercut the claims about the brain science and violence, or are there are factors at work?

I can anticipate a reasonable response by the creators of NOVA. "We were trying to be inclusive and to talk about how violence of this type cuts across lines of race."

I would respond that in their efforts to be "inclusive" they flattened the distinctions and differences, likely very meaningful ones, between the young people in their story. Colorblindness can do the work of racial inequality and White Privilege. The young black and brown youth at Mendota did not kill dozens of people. Was this because of opportunity, resources, culture, or identity? Race is a variable here that should be engaged and not avoided as Americans ask hard questions about Whiteness, White Masculinity, and mass gun violence.

"Mind of a Rampage Killer" closed with Liza Long, the parent who wrote the much emailed "I am Adam Lanza's Mother." There she bravely took on the task of defending the Newtown murderer's mother's difficult predicament in raising a deeply troubled young child. Long offered up a potent and powerful narrative that explored the day-to-day life of a parent who loves a dangerous and quite mentally ill child. She is very brave and patient. I commend her persistence.

But again, which "type" of mother in American society is more likely to be depicted as idealized and worthy of both empathy and sympathy? Liza Long's child is clearly and demonstrably a threat to himself and to others. He is so dangerous that his mother shares with the interviewer how she keeps a box of knives and other sharp objects in a Tupperware container under the seat of the car, for fear that her child will get access to them if they were in the home.

Race, gender, and other identities come together in how such socially powerful identities as motherhood and fatherhood are constructed and understood. Would a black woman whose kid had access to an arsenal in the home, and who she taught to shoot, be depicted in a sympathetic way like Adam Lanza's mother? Would a Latina whose kid was known and documented to be a violent threat to others be shown in the narrative of a documentary as a good soul who is overwhelmed by the circumstances? Would the mother of an Arab or Muslim kid who is as dangerous and potentially violent as the white male spree shooters shown on NOVA, be shown in a kind light, or would she just be the mother of a potential "terrorist?"

In a society where the white racial frame is dominant, and one which is structured in systems that perpetuate and maintain White Privilege, those are questions that most white folks (and some others) do not want to confront or engage. NOVA's "Mind of a Rampage Killer" was a good and necessary effort. It also could have been much improved by attending to some basis questions about race and racial difference. Yes, "we" are all the same; "we" are also very much different too in terms of our social experiences, and the value and meaning placed on our lives and personhood.

Ultimately, by ignoring and avoiding basic questions about the relationship between gun violence, Whiteness, and masculinity, White Privilege hurts white folks and people of color too. Rather than exposing the particular intersections (and complications) of race and mass gun violence, PBS missed a great opportunity to engage in some truth-telling (and teaching) in the service of the Common Good.


Christopher Johnson said...

Bang on analysis. Conspicuous case of apples-and-oranges; surprising for the usually circumspect NOVA and Miles O'Brian. The crimes of the young men at Mendota were the inexorable result of deprivation -- the, ahem, 'patients' of the facility came across as utterly rational. Tangible, usable power was derived from their criminal actions. The crimes of the 'rampage killer', in contrast, are the bloody howls of the id; bratty tirades directed at Mommy or some unrequited crush. Anyone who doesn't see the cultural/racial aspects of the 'rampage killer' phenomenon isn't paying attention.

chauncey devega said...

Funny, how the obvious is verboten. I would think that as a matter of public health that people, out of self-interest-would talk about this. I had to watch the doc a second time to confirm how utterly "wrong" for lack of a better word the Mendota section of the doc was. The ending was something too--that woman is a saint, her kid is a time bomb.

lre said...

ThousandS of black gang shooters and not even a hundred white spree killers ... the oddity I guess .

Ted Parker said...

this country can only fall from within

chauncey devega said...

come now, you can do better than that. white men are 25 or so percent of the general population and 75 or so percent of mass shooters.

not difficult math. the denial is glaring. this is a public health issue that white folks, one would think, would want to engage and figure out.

chauncey devega said...

Public subsidies like in Scandinavia for access to sex workers? Sign me up. I bet the GOP would protest in public and be cashing those checks in private. Could be a big boost for Red State America!

!!! said...

Sorry, but no. This is nothing but a bunch of assumptions about the sex lives of young black men, plus the idea that "acceptance by a female" is something owed to men in general.

If we had legalized prostitution, the entitled mentality of these young white men would still be that they, being "real men" shouldn't "have to" pay for it and that women (the most beautiful and eligible women, thank you very much) should love them for just being who they are. Teaching this type of man that it is womens' job to service him would not be progress. It would be feeding his disease.

I am sure most spree killers do not have satisfying sex lives, but the issue here isn't their relations with women, it is their relations with all of society. They feel that they are owed respect and something in our culture indicates to them that respect can be obtained through catastrophic violence. These are the sorts of people who, if they had a girlfriend, would simply beat the shit out of her or terrorize her emotionally for looking at him funny. Heaven help her if she were to break up with him. THERE IS A REASON women avoid these men.

Those who "feel like an unloved troll" inside cannot be fixed by changing their external reality. It's all about what is going on within, as much as the media may have to do with it.

chauncey devega said...

got to cosign that one. and how would they treat their partners?

CNu said...

Anyone who doesn't see the cultural/racial aspects of the 'rampage killer' phenomenon isn't paying attention.

I've been paying attention for the longest, and I find the cultural/racial argument specious, strained, and lacking rigor - but that's what one should expect from colored proxies of the angry white feminist establishment in both higher and lower "education" - thank gawd they don't run math, physics, and engineering anywhere yet.

The real story behind mass shootings has an ancillary racial aspect to it, but that racial aspect doesn't rise to the level of causation - and as a correlation - is as yet unexplored.

chauncey devega said...

I know your song on this one. you are usually a very critical thinker for the most part allowing for your flights of fantasy into death squads and other silliness (we all have quirks). your feminist obsession is also interesting albeit not very rigorous or able to be operationalized in a rigorous way. still fun.

as we said repeatedly, that one group of people is so grossly overrepresented among one category of killers is fascinating. are you resistant to this basic observation because of you position on guns? is it a slippery slope where asking a reasonable question on x leads us to other questions on y?

if we are to prove your ssri hypothesis, again one that should be explored, we must also include race and class as variables which may make it easier to get access to those drugs.

remember, as we discussed, I am not making a causal argument. my claim is one of a very high correlation, that if we are going to be serious about this public health problem we had best investigate. my claim here is not that being white and male--however we deal with those constructs "causes" anything. but, a certain type of aggrieved sense of entitlement along with those drugs could be very important variables here.

aggrieved entitlement also matches nicely with the white right herrenvolk rhetoric of the tea party gop since the 1990s to the present. Like Jameson and others I believe in the idea of a collective subconscious. That these white male spree killers in the video sound like entitled spoiled brats and we have a political moment where some of the loudest voices are those of aggrieved privileged white masculinity is important and ought to be examined. Moreover, that white victimology can be measured by public opinion data is also damn powerful.

you believe in real politik in most things, even an extreme variant of it. i would like to believe that you would even concede that if black or brown folks were 3 times their rate in the population to be involved in spree shooting that there would be a literal witch hunt afoot that would make the wilding superpredator meme of the 1980s early 1990s look like Disneyland.

CNu said...

you are usually a very critical thinker for the most part allowing for your flights of fantasy into death squads and other silliness (we all have quirks).

lol, the death squads have been underway in Brazil now for four or five years, with paramilitary sweeps in the favelas being the new normal just in anticipation of the 2016 Olympics. Oh, and Brazil is not a collapsing economy like the U.S.

i would like to believe that you would even concede that if black or brown folks were 3 times their rate in the population to be involved in spree shooting

One year of black ignants in Chicago puts all the mass shootings you pretend to clutch your pearls over combined to shame.

I was looking at little buckwheat-looking Rich Benjamin this morning on MHP. Leaving alone the question of his sartorial idiosyncracy for just one moment, brahman on to something with regard to white folks.

Been a black man 50 years tomorrow, and I'm tired, tired, tired, of 40 years of angry white feminist social engineering and generalized fuckuppery me dayyum self....,

chauncey devega said...

That Rich Benjamin line is pretty damn funny. His book actually really good. On monday or tuesday I have something on warrior genes and some other related matters that you may find interesting. We have some overlaps in our views.

On a semi-related matter. What type of idiot proof pistol should I buy? I want something new, reliable, and that I cannot mess up if half asleep, surprised, etc. Just reach out and touch someone easy. 38 revolver? My mother still has my father's service colt 1911, but getting it to another state could be a pain. And isn't it also prone to jamming?

CNu said...

guns and ignants declared the health crisis in chicago...,

Tom said...

Have you guys ever thought that this might not be a case of spoiled brat syndrome - but a case of community solidarity. When you live an affluent lifestyle in the suburbs you don;t need people - gated communities being the classic example of the affluent cutting themselves off from the rest of the world....then mix this attitude with throwaway consumerism. Perhaps this attitude extends into the lives of the children somehow - instead of a spoiled narcissistic killer - they have children who feel no need to form long standing social bonds because at the end of the day they can throw away relationships as easily as they found them (or so they think). The affluent lifestyle with parents working 50 hours a week (as a doctor perhaps) then helps to foster a lack of communication between families the community and the children themselves - causing some of them to feel cut off.

On the other hand - poorer communities can't be so obsessed with consumerism - people can have more time for each other - at the same time everyday life is harder. I would have thought this creates a tendency for people to form strong social bonds and more of a community feel for survival purposes.

Maybe it's not a case of "poor spoiled white boy".....just an increasing lack of humanity,.