By Rob Okun
Like our slaveholding first president—not our current one—I cannot tell a lie: we must chop down the poisonous tree of white supremacist masculinity.
I felt tears well up when I heard about the alt-right violence unleashed in Charlottesville on August 12. Some of my tears, though, were in frustration. How is it possible after all the years colleagues and I have been writing and speaking about the gender of the killers—from Columbine to Orlando—that coverage of murder suspect James Fields. Jr. failed to point out the obvious: he was a disaffected, alienated 20-year-old male. Sound familiar? Recognize the profile?
If we were to speak to the 20- and 30-something men like Fields who chanted the Nazi “Blood and Soil” slogan while marching with lighted torches across the University of Virginia campus to make America hate again, we’d find many shared a similar profile. Outrageous that our “so called” president stands with them.
Of course we have to vigorously confront—in the strongest words and deeds—white supremacists’ vile attacks on African-Americans and other people of color, Muslims, Jews, the GBTQ community, immigrants—anyone targeted by neo-Nazis and white nationalists. And, we have to call out our “so called” leaders if they hesitate even for a moment (let alone days) before condemning toxic assaults on a free, inclusive society.
Hear me, please. While there are white women supremacists, the vast majority are white males. We ignore that fact at our peril. In our long-term strategy to address domestic terrorism we must make central raising emotionally literate boys, dismantling bullying masculinity, and demanding the CDC conduct a study of the mental health of boys and young men. Disconnected, rudderless young males are vulnerable prey for older, angry white men promoting ideologies of hate. We must prevent their recruitment or we will continue to experience violence like what happened in Charlottesville. Or worse.
The morning after the tainted 2016 presidential election, the KKK-inspired alt-right’s ragtag army had found its general; they’ve been emboldened ever since. Don’t believe me? Check the uptick nationally in hate crimes in the past six months.
The warning signs about James Fields were in plain sight long before he plowed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd, killing activist and paralegal Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 others. His family and acquaintances, and his internet posts suggest he had mostly “gone unnoticed by the authorities and researchers, even as he trafficked in radical views and unnerving behavior long before the outbreak of violence,” wrote Alan Blinder in the New York Times. In his teenage years some who knew him said, “his demeanor and opinions had troubled them for years.”
Did his family reach out to his doctor or school guidance counselor? Engage a therapist? Was anyone paying attention when, as a young man in Kentucky, he touted Nazi ideology? “On many occasions… he would scream obscenities, whether it be about Hitler or racial slurs,” a former middle school classmate told the New York Times. He was “exceptionally odd and an outcast to be sure.”
Who among us doesn’t remember a boy in middle and high school who was “exceptionally odd” and an “outcast?” Such young men need to be helped, not hounded; supported, not shunned. I’m not suggesting hate-spewing bad actors aren’t totally responsible for their actions; they are. Rather, that we prevent them from becoming hatemongers in the first place.
In white America’s ongoing work to unflinchingly take responsibility for our country’s shameful slaveholding origins, we must also examine how we socialize boys to become men. The kissin’ cousin of a white supremacist history is our patriarchal legacy.
Since symbols of the Confederacy have begun to be removed—from lowering flags in Southern state capitols to toppling Civil War statues—in the national conversation about confronting white nationalism, we cannot forget the role toxic masculinity plays.
The George Washington cherry tree story reminds us, “I cannot tell a lie.” So, let’s not. Let’s acknowledge that we must chop down the tree of violent, hate-filled white masculinity to get at the root of our malaise. Then, together, we can plant seedlings for a new forest of American manhood deeply rooted in accountability, compassion, and self-reflection. We cannot afford to wait another moment.