Why White Men Keep Mum about the White Maleness of Mass Shootings


The national conversation about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects shows again how important it is to continue to write about the effects of white male culture on violence (see Voice Male Winter 2013), say Charlotte and Harriet Childress, researchers on social and political issues. Despite the Tsarnav brothers being immersed in U.S. white male culture for 10 years, virtually all discussion about their actions focused on their religion. The suspects were clearly white men of European descent. Nevertheless, the overwhelming response to what happened dismissed their race. Why? The Childresses noted that many conservatives essentially said the men weren’t white; they’re Muslim.

“The column we published in The Washington Post on March 29 (‘White men have much to discuss about mass shootings’) caused a firestorm of protests from conservatives, including Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Wall Street Journal” the Childresses recounted. “Most of the tens of thousands of comments that followed, the response found on 300 websites, and on talk radio shows offered no logical conversation about solving the violence problem. The comments we saw appeared to be from white males. Their primary goal was to shift accountability away from their group and their leaders.”


Imagine if African American men and boys were committing mass shootings month after month, year after year. Articles and interviews would flood the media, and we’d have political debates demanding that African Americans be “held accountable.” Then, if an atrocity such as the Newtown, Conn., shootings took place and African American male leaders held a news conference to offer solutions, their credibility would be questionable. The public would tell these leaders they need to focus on problems in their own culture and communities.

But when the criminals and leaders are white men, race and gender become the elephant in the room.

Nearly all of the mass shootings in this country in recent years—not just Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Tucson, and Columbine—have been committed by white men and boys. Yet when the National Rifle Association (NRA), led by white men, held a news conference after the Newtown massacre to advise Americans on how to reduce gun violence, its leaders’ opinions were widely discussed.

Unlike other groups, white men are not used to being singled out. So we expect that many of them will protest it is unfair if we talk about them. But our nation must correctly define their contribution to our problem of gun violence if it is to be solved.

When white men try to divert attention from gun control by talking about mental health issues, many people buy into the idea that the United States has a national mental health problem, or flawed systems with which to address those problems, and they think that is what produces mass shootings.

But women and girls with mental health issues are not picking up semiautomatic weapons and shooting schoolchildren. Immigrants with mental health issues are not committing mass shootings in malls and movie theaters. Latinos with mental health issues are not continually killing groups of strangers.

Each of us is programmed from childhood to believe that the top group of our hierarchies—and in the U.S. culture, that’s white men—represents everyone, so it can feel awkward, even ridiculous, when we try to call attention to those people as a distinct group and hold them accountable.

For example, our schools teach American history as the history of everyone in this nation. But the stories we learn are predominantly about white men. To study the history of other groups, people have to take separate classes, such as African American history, women’s history, or Native American history. And if we take “Hispanic American History,” we don’t expect to learn “Asian American History,” because a class about anyone but white men is assumed not to be inclusive of anyone else.

This societal and cultural programming makes it easy for conservative, white-male-led groups to convince the nation that an organization led by white men, such as the NRA or the Tea Party movement, can represent the interests of the entire nation when, in fact, they predominately represent only their own experiences and perspectives.

If life were equitable, white male gun-rights advocates would face some serious questions to assess their degree of credibility and objectivity. We would expect them to explain:

• What facets of white male culture create so many mass shootings?

• Why are so many white men and boys producing and entertaining themselves with violent video games and other media?

• Why do white men buy, sell, and manufacture guns for profit; attend gun shows; and demonstrate for unrestricted gun access disproportionately more than people of other ethnicities or races?

•  Why are white male congressmen leading the fight against gun control?

If Americans ask the right questions on gun issues, we will get the right answers. These answers will encourage white men to examine their role in their own culture and to help other white men and boys become healthier and less violent.


charlotte and harriet childress thumbnailCharlotte and Harriet Childress are researchers and consultants on social and political issues. They are the co-authors of Clueless at the Top: While the Rest of Us Turn Elsewhere for Life, Liberty, and Happiness, on outdated hierarchies in American culture. To learn more, go to cluelessatthetop.com