The Colorado “Batman Movie” Shooting Massacre will generate many narratives among the public and media. This tragedy will be one more opportunity to reflect on the United States’ gun laws. The relationship between popular culture and violence will be a hot topic as well. Others will focus on questions surrounding access to mental healthcare, and what if anything could have been done to prevent James Holmes from committing his murder rampage during the debut of The Dark Knight Rises.
However, there are several conversations that will likely not occur. It is unlikely that the aftermath of the Colorado shooting rampage will be a moment when we as a country reflect upon the relationship between masculinity and violence. There most certainly will not be a “beer summit” about how accused shooter James Holmes is one more entry in a long list of mass killers who are white, male, and young.
When viewed through the white racial frame, there is nothing in his deeds on last Friday night that reflects upon the behavior of white people, generally, or white men in particular. From this perspective, his dressing up as The Joker, and killing more than a dozen people, and wounding many more, are the actions of one sick person.
As folks have worked through many times before in the common “what if?” game of race in America, if James Holmes were black or brown this would be one more signal to the existence of a “pathological culture” among said group. If James Holmes were Muslim American the Colorado shooting would be a clear act of “terrorism,” and an example of the Islamic bogeyman next door who has occupied the dreams and nightmares of the “heartland” since September 11th.
These narratives would be accepted as common sense; few qualifiers or critical interventions would be offered by the mass media, the pundit classes, or the general public.
Consider the following list for a moment: with a few exceptions, most of those men who have committed mass shootings in the United States have been white.
- July 12, 1976: Edward Charles Allaway, a custodian in the library of California State University, Fullerton, fatally shot seven fellow employees and wounded two others.
- Aug. 20, 1986: Pat Sherrill, 44, a postal worker who was about to be fired, shoots 14 people at a post office in Edmond, Okla. He then kills himself.
- July 18, 1984: James Oliver Huberty, an out-of-work security guard, kills 21 people in a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif. A police sharpshooter kills Huberty.
- Aug. 1, 1966: Charles Whitman opened fire from the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, killing 16 people and wounding 31.
- Oct. 16, 1991: A deadly shooting rampage took place in Killeen, Texas, as George Hennard opened fire at a Luby’s Cafeteria, killing 23 people before taking his own life. 20 others were wounded in the attack.
- April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves in the school’s library.
- March 10, 2009: Michael McLendon, 28, killed 10 people – including his mother, four other relatives, and the wife and child of a local sheriff’s deputy – across two rural Alabama counties. He then killed himself.
The freedom to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group, is one of the ultimate, if not in fact most potent, examples of White Privilege in post civil rights era America. Instead of a national conversation where we reflect on what has gone wrong with young white men in our society–a group which apparently possesses a high propensity for committing acts of mass violence–James Holmes will be framed as an outlier.
That is a mighty comfort to have–all of one’s deficiencies are ignored as those of an individual; all of one’s abilities and gifts are taken as positive attributes and credits to one’s race.
As comedian Louis CK has joked, it sure as hell is good to be white and male in America! If given a choice to re-up every year, who the hell wouldn’t sign up to be white again?
In America, folks often ask, “what the hell is wrong with black people?” In the aftermath of the Colorado Movie Massacre, Columbine, and many other incidents, we need to ask, “what the hell is wrong with young white men?
Sadly, that question will not be asked on a national stage. White privilege is blinding. In the case of James Holmes, it also mutes a much needed national conversation about the ties between (white) masculinity and violence.