My essay "The plague of angry white men: How racism, gun culture and toxic masculinity are poisoning America" was recently featured over at Salon. The Right-wing trough urinal sewer dwellers are still upset over the basic truth-telling I offered there. The piece that appeared at Salon was significantly shortened from the original. What follows is the original piece uncut and unabridged.
As though it was a type of forced civic duty and obligation, Roof said to his victims: “I have to do it.” He then shared his grievances: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” Then he let off a fusillade of bullets.
A superficial reading would suggest that the “our” is simple to decipher: Roof is channeling his white nationalist understanding of “America” as a country synonymous with and exclusively for “white” people. This is the logic of the phrase that “America is a white man’s country.” The “our” is also signifies the control and possession of white women’s bodies and personhood by white men.
The idea of black men raping white women is a centuries-old White American fantasy: It is the justification for the lynching tree, where thousands of innocent black men were made into “strange fruit.” The lynching tree also reinforces a cultural lie, that white women are the most desired among all others, and tries to conceal how many white women from both before the founding of the United States, through to the Age of Obama, willingly have had relationships with Black men, a perfectly banal observation that nonetheless enrages white supremacists.
Nationalist and politically chauvinistic ideologies tend towards patriarchy and sexism. White nationalism is no exception. As such, Dylann Roof’s white racial terrorism is an act of violence, and one that is grounded in a particular understanding of gender: “Male” or “female” are designations of human, sexual, biological difference. “Masculine” and “feminine,” however, are social constructs that are not fixed, which change over time, and in response to particular arrangements of social and political power. Here, gender is a type of performance (in its most binary and simple form) as a given person acts “male” or “female.” And toxic masculinity is a performance that emphasizes violence, control over others, sexual aggression, and a lack of emotion and vulnerability. Dylann Roof—with the guns, violence, resentment, right-wing politics, and racism—is the extreme embodiment of toxic white masculinity.
The color line is not separate from gender: The two are deeply connected to one another in the United States and the West more broadly. Dylann Roof’s performance of gender involved an understanding that he should have power over and was inherently superior to, people of color because of his skin color. Moreover, as understood by his racist political ideology, Dylann Roof was granted an additional claim on power and authority because he is a man. Roof's racism and sexism thus intersect in what philosophers Carol Pateman and Charles Mills have described as “racial patriarchy.” This is system of racial domination in which people of color are subordinate to whites. It is also a relationship where white men have more power than white women. But all white people have a higher place than any person of color—either male or female. Women of color occupy the basement level of a society organized around a system of racial patriarchy.
This system, in its most unapologetic and honest form, is the dream of white nationalists. It is also a reactionary conservative nostalgia for a fictive past that now wins converts online through cyber racism, at Tea Party rallies, and maps out its fantasies in speculative fiction such as the Turner Diaries and books by Harold Covington.
But while tethered to ideals of the past, white nationalism also lives in the present; thus, it must deal with and negotiate questions about feminism, immigration, cosmopolitanism, globalization, and other related matters if it is to remain viable as a community and belief system. Consequently, white nationalism has its own type of “gender troubles.” Can one be a feminist and also a white nationalist? Are white men and white women equal because they are both “white”? Should white women be subordinate to white men? These are the types of questions that white nationalists have been debating with one another online and in other spaces. Dylann Roof’s manifesto demonstrates knowledge, however superficial, of these various currents and controversies in contemporary white nationalist “political thought.”
These discussions of racial patriarchy among white supremacists are not new; Nancy Maclean explored the Ku Klux Klan’s struggles with questions of gender in the first part of the early 20th century in her book "Behind the Mask of Chivalry":
Klan tracts and speakers dwelt far less on men’s behavior than on women’s. This was in part because male roles were changing less than female roles, and in part because Klansmen were more interested in controlling others than in self-scrutiny. Nevertheless, they expounded a particular model of masculinity. Klansmen expected women to marry, to provide for their families, and to exercise control over their wives and children. “God intended,” affirmed one Klan minister, “that every man should possess insofar as possible, his own home and rule his own household.”
Rule over one’s women was mandated by another staple of the Klan’s conception of masculinity: “honor”; or, as it was sometimes called, “chivalry.” Honor dictated a commitment to protect the virtue of “American” women. Historically honor in fact rested on a man’s ability to control the sexuality of his female relations…
Although hostile to sexual emancipation, the Klan was not an outright foe of all women’s equality. The order’s commitment to moral uplift in fact led it to support rights for white Protestant women…Nonetheless, recognition of women by Klansmen was always shot though with ambivalence. Klansmen’s ideal, after all, was the nineteenth-century petty proprietor—whether farmer, artisan, or merchant. His vaunted independence as a citizen presumed his control over the labor and behavior of the dependents in his household. However much Klansmen might try to cooperate with women who shared their social goals, female initiative set them on edge; the undertow of patriarchal prerogative impeded full solidarity.Dylann Roof was attracted to white nationalism and white supremacy because of a sense of alienation and anger at the world. Although he was born middle class, Roof somehow came to feel that America -- because of immigration, changing demographics, and pernicious fictions about “black crime” -- had abandoned him. In Roof’s mind, he was forced into action, to be “heroic,” “the Last Rhodesian,” launching an attack on unarmed black people.
Roof’s actions were those of the “angry white man” on steroids. While his feelings of toxic white masculinity could have been insulated by the relative privileges of being born into the middle class, he was instead suckered into a sense of white racial victimology, entitlement, and identity politics by the right-wing media and online racist propaganda. Never did he think to identify the system he venerated, racial patriarchy, as the source of his own alienation. Instead, like so many other angry young men like him, he bought into it wholeheartedly. Roof’s translating this anger into violent action is (thankfully) a rare event in the United States. But, as sociologist Michael Kimmer detailed in his book “Angry White Men”, this sense of (white) grievance and anger is all too common.
On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class…Their plan is to get even…Like the guys who go postal, they externalize their rage—their anguish is clearly the fault of someone else—but they don’t externalize it to their immediate surroundings, their boss, supervisor, or coworkers. Instead, it’s larger, more powerful, and pernicious social forces—Jews, Muslims, minorities generally, women…
Guns are central to toxic white masculinity, as well as the broader white supremacist and conservative politics that Dylann Roof exemplified. In the United States, guns have a deep historic relationship to the maintenance and enforcement of hierarchies of race, class, and gender. They were a tool for committing mass genocide against First Nations peoples, for example. They were given to white indentured servants in the 17th century as a way of cementing their identities as “free” people who could then be used to oppress and control black slaves and other people of color. Guns have been a tool for American plutocrats and the 1 percent to control the working classes and the poor. The gun is also a powerful symbol of masculinity and virility: A recent ad campaign by the manufacturer of the AR-15 rifle featured a picture of the weapon along with the tagline: “Consider your man card reissued.”
Jonathan Katz’s and the online resource Feminist Current’s insights are very helpful here:
But we’re talking white, middle class men — the members of this society who have the most privilege and the most power. The question everyone should be asking is not: “Where did he get the gun?” or “Why wasn’t he on medication?” But: “What is happening with white men?”
This isn’t to say that men are somehow naturally inclined towards violence. It isn’t reasonable to argue that men are born angry or crazy. Masculinity, on the other hand, is something worth thinking about.
“It’s hidden in plain sight,” Katz says. “This is about masculinity and it’s about manhood.” Other factors are important too, for example, how masculinity intersects with mental illness or emotional problems or with access to guns. “But we need to be talking about gender front and center.”
Even the gun debate needs to be gendered, Katz points out. “So much of gun culture in the U.S. is about masculinity but it’s unspoken.”
What is it about masculinity that leads to these kinds of tragedies? Katz argues that violence is a gendered way of achieving certain goals. Femininity simply isn’t constructed in a way that teaches women to use violence as a means to an end.Moreover, if one is to properly understand Dylann Roof and his white nationalist politics, the strong correlation between gun ownership, fear of “crime”, and racial animus towards black and brown people cannot be ignored.
The Charlotte Massacre is an opportunity to practice what sociologists and others call “systems level thinking”. How do we contextualize and locate Dylann Roof and his ideology relative to a broader political and society schema?
Roof’s affection for the Confederate Flag (i.e. the American Swastika) as well as the flags of Apartheid era South Africa and Rhodesia provide a helpful beginning for this process.
The Confederate Flag is a symbol of white racial terrorism against black Americans. In the aftermath of the Charleston Massacre, the Republican Party is staging a tactical retreat away from the Treason Flag in order to prevent any meaningful conversation about gun control. This is an anomaly: the Republican Party has for decades (in some cases literally re: the American Swastika) wrapped itself in the rhetoric, symbolism, and history of the treasonous Confederacy.
In the Age of Obama, Republican leaders and others on the White Right have used politically explosive and racially tinged language such as “secession” and “nullification” to rile up white racism in an effort to win elections and to delegitimize Barack Obama as the United States’ first black president. The Republican Party is now the United States’ largest white identity organization by virtue of its demographics and policies, and efforts to rescind the voting rights and other protections won by the Civil Rights and long Black Freedom Struggles.
The Republican Party’s rebirth from the ashes of the Confederacy has influenced its racial, class, and gender politics: it is no coincidence that the Republican Party has waged a war on women’s control over their own bodies, while destroying the social safety net, and pursuing an unrepentant politics of white racial resentment and bigotry since the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the dawn of Lee Atwater’s infamous “Southern Strategy”.
In addition, the antebellum South through to Secession, into the post bellum period, and now the present, has unusually high levels of class inequality relative to other parts of the United States. The South to which the Republican Party is heir had a landed aristocracy based on slave labor and cotton. The South was also extremely patriarchal and violent—even by the American standards of the day.
America is a racial patriarchy. The world to which Dylann Roof pledged his allegiance embodies those values to the extreme.
As seen with Dylann Roof and other mass shooters (a group in which white males are grossly overrepresented) such as Elliot Rodgers, Adam Lanza, the Columbine killers, and James Holmes, toxic masculinity (and a sense of aggrieved white male entitlement), are central to their decision to use firearms to commit acts of mass murder.
The corporate news media does not want a sustained discussion of gun violence as a type of public health crisis. The corporate news media is also unwilling to discuss how domestic terrorism by right-wing white men is now the United States’ leading threat to public order. Very troublingly, the corporate news media considers it impolitic to explore how the right-wing echo chamber is radicalizing and weaponizing its followers.
And there most certainly will not be a “national conversation” about toxic white masculinity and mass murder in the mainstream new media.