Race, Gender & Rampage

IMG_6439Understanding the two rampage shootings in the news recently requires a grasp of the way race and gender are implicated in both cases (Creative Commons License photo credit: ankarino).

On April 3, In Binghamton, NY a Vietnamese immigrant,  Jiverly Linh Phat Wong — (or Voong) — blocked the back exit of a civic community center where immigrants attended English-language classes and shot 13 people to death before killing himself.  On April 4, Richard Poplawski shot and killed three Pittsburgh, PA police officers  – and injured two others – during a standoff that lasted nearly four hours.  Understanding race and gender is crucial here given that one of these is about anti-Asian discrimination, the other is about antisemitism and white supremacy, and both are about masculinity.

Rampage & Race: Reacting to Anti-Asian Discrimination

Understanding what happened in Binghamton requires understanding the way anti-Asian discrimination operates in the U.S.  Many people don’t even realize that there is such a thing as anti-Asian discrimination, so perhaps it’s best to start with a recent example, such as the truly asinine remarks of Rep. Betty Brown (R-Texas). On Tuesday (April 7), Brown said that Asian Americans should consider changing their name to make it “easier for Americans to deal with.” Brown has resisted efforts to apologize for her remarks.   This sort of comment might be offensive enough from an ordinary citizen, but coming from an elected official with legislative power to implement her racist ideas is alarming and indicative of the kind of discrimination that Asian Americans routinely face.  This sort of discrimination takes a toll.

In the opening chapter of The Myth of the Model Minority, authors Chou and Feagin highlight the many costs of anti-Asian racism on mental health:

Few researchers have probed Asian American mental health data in any depth. One mid-2000s study of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrant youth examined acculturation to the core culture, but only briefly noted that some of these youth experienced substantial “cultural stress, such as being caught between two cultures, feeling alienated from both cultures, and having interpersonal conflicts with whites.”47 Another study examined only Korean male immigrants and found some negative impact on mental health from early years of adjustment and some mental “stagnation” a decade so after immigration. Yet the researchers offered little explanation for the findings. One recent study of U.S. teenagers found that among various racial groups Asian American youth had by far the highest incidence of teenage depression, yet the report on this research did not even assess the importance of this striking finding.48

In the modest statistical analysis that exists, Asian American statistics on suicide and alcoholism stand out. Elderly Chinese American women have a suicide rate ten times that of their elderly white counterparts. While Asian American students are only 17 percent of the Cornell University student body, they make up fully half of all completed suicides there.

Despite the high-profile cases of Asians and Asian-Americans involved in violent crimes, such as the Binghamton and Virginia Tech cases, the majority of Asian-Americans tend to hold in their rage over discrimination, part of what is responsible for the highest suicide rates of all racial groups in the U.S.

Andrew Lam, author of  Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, writes at New American Media, that:

Whenever a minority commits a heinous crime, it seems to beckon us in the media to search beyond an individual motive for a cultural one.

Yet, there is a certain level of hypocrisy in this, as Lam points out, because there is very little analysis of American culture when these crimes make news.

If the Asian shame-based culture is still prominent, keeping its citizens in line and well behaved, it is the gun culture in America that is most conspicuous. It is there on TV and video games and the Internet and the silver screen, and it is the most accessible language for the tongue-tied. For them the gun –- be it in video games or at the practicing range — speaks volumes.

So, for instance, when a white man commits one of these rampage killings, there’s very little analysis of the dominant white culture in most of the mainstream news reports about the event. The incident in Pittsburgh is a case in point.

Rampage & Race: Acting on Antisemitism & White Supremacy

Several press reports have noted that Richard Poplawski, the shooter in the Pittsburgh case, held virulently antisemitic views and frequented conspiracy-theory websites such as Alex Jones’ Infowars. CNN refers to him as a white supremacist who believes that Jews control American media, financial institutions and government and that federal authorities plan to confiscate guns owned lawfully by American citizens, based on ADL reports about Poplawki’s postings at Don Black’s Stormfront.

Mainstream press accounts like the one from CNN tend to represent Poplawski as a “nutcase,” without offering any sort of analysis of how his views might be shared by other whites.  David Weigel, of The Washington Independent, does make this connection between mainstream white culture and incidents like the Pittsburgh shooting.   He writes that after spending the weekend attending the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky where all manner of Third Reich memorabilia was available for sale, that he is not surprised by Poplawski’s beliefs. Weigel also calls out conservative talk show host Glenn Beck for fanning the flames of conspiracy theorists with rants like this one.

Gender & Rampage: Enacting Violent Masculinity

Unfortunately, what almost no one in the mainstream press or the blogosphere has pointed out about the recent shootings is the connection to gender, and specifically, to a particulalry violent form of masculinity.   Harvard sociologist Katherine Newman and colleagues in their 2004 book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, observe the following about the relationship of rampage shooters in their study to violent masculinity:

“The shooters appear to be working from widely available cultural scripts that glorify violent masculinity.    …. The shooting solves two problems at once:  it provides them the ‘exit’ they are seeking and it overturns the social hiearchy, establishing once and for all that they are…’gutsy and daring,’ not ‘weak and slow-witted.’  The problem is they didn’t just fail at popularity — they failed at the very specific task of ‘manhood,’ or at least they felt that way.  The solutions to this failure are popularized in the media in violent song lyrics, movies, and video games.  But the overall script of violent masculinity is omnipresent.  ‘Men’ handle their own problems.   They don’t talk; they act.  They fight back.  And above all, ‘men’ must never let others push them around.” (Newman, et al., 2004: 269).

While the Binghamton and Pittsburgh incidents did not take place within the context of schools, as did the incidents that Newman and colleagues studied, there are some real similarities between them with regard to violent masculinity.   The stance that Wong adopted for his pose with the guns he later used for murder and suicide evokes the cool pose of violent masculinity that is glorified in any number of mainstream American movies, music and television.    Poplawski’s former girlfriend filed for a domestic abuse protection order against him because he dragged her by the hair across the floor and threatened to kill her.   Both Wong and Poplawski seem to have internalized, and eventually acted on, a violent version of masculinity in which they “handled” their problems in a way that reaffirmed their manhood – at least in their own minds.   And, given the ways that becoming a “real man” in U.S. society is tied to the economic success and the role of “breadwinner” for the family, the continued economic decline suggests even more of these kinds of violent rampages by men who are unable to earn a living.

* * *

Shooting rampages like the ones in Binghamton and Pittsburgh are becoming more common here in the U.S.   As Nickie Wild writing at Sociology Lens explains, this may be part of a “super anomie,” in which the gap between what one wants to achieve and what seems possible widens (or seems insurmountable) and then violence increases.  Others have pointed to the shooting incidents as indications that U.S. gun laws need re-thinking, and this is truly the case.   Yet, to really understand what’s behind these sorts of rampage shootings, we must have a more complex understanding of the ways race and gender are intricately woven into the fabric of these violent incidents.


  1. Joe

    Well argued, Jessie. Thanks for the detailed analysis of these very disturbing events. Hyper-masculinity of a certain sort does seem to be behind so many mass murders in this country. They are almost always done by men.

  2. Jessie Author

    Thanks, Joe. Race is just as important – the Newman, et al. book Rampage that I quoted from does a just a little on gender and nothing on race. And, of course, mainstream accounts of all this rarely, if ever, offer an analysis of either race or gender and reduce it down to a mental health issue (devoid of social context) or a “gun issue.”

  3. Yeah, Jessie, I’m with Joe. Good job.

    For my tastes, it can never be overstated the way entire cultures are indicted when minorities go on rampages, but when white, almost always men, do the same, it’s just an individual nutcase. I guess it’s just accepted by the dominant culture that it has no faults. But with all the white males going on rampages, you’d think someone would put “cultural problems” on the next agenda. (No, I don’t really believe white people all attend some secret meeting. You can watch Hagee and others just about any day of the week.)

    The other thing I’d like to explore in depth is this: “And, given the ways that becoming a “real man” in U.S. society is tied to the economic success and the role of “breadwinner” for the family, the continued economic decline suggests even more of these kinds of violent rampages by men who are unable to earn a living.” The economic position of African American men has to impact what we see developing as “a way of life,” especially as pertains to fatherhood and marriage. With the way “breadwinning” is held up as an ideal for manhood, something’s not right with the way black “culture” is indicted for, say, crime in our most poverty concentrated areas. Is it any surprise, then, that once socio-econ status is controlled, crime rates are roughly the same across races and ethnicities.

  4. Claire Renzetti

    Alston, there is research that examines the relationship between economic stress and intimate partner violence, which is my area of expertise. Right now we are seeing a pretty dramatic increase in calls to the police for domestic violence and, unfortunately, this is occurring at a time when social services, such as battered women’s shelters, are experiencing a decline in funding and donations. One particularly interesting finding in several studies is that women are especially at risk when they are employed and their male partners have become unemployed, indicating that this “violation” of traditional gender roles is threatening to some men’s sense of masculinity and they use violence against women to reassert and demonstrate masculine superiority or dominance.

  5. @Alston – Yes. That sort of thing is not the thrust of my interest, so I can’t direct you to a book or anything like that. But I’m sure I’ve read stats from such studies. For example, the number of lynchings went up during the great depression. I’m not sure that particular tidbit helps you, but information like that is available.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    Because the main post hits on racism and anti-Semitism, and because post 5 highlights DV in the response: My thoughts of all thoughts above in both the main post and responses synthesized (this one focused on empowerment)—often hate crimes or hate DV/SA occur within intra-ethnic and/or intra-racial relationships, sometimes for years on end (much not reported…sometimes never…much is invisible to society)—to all victims and survivors and the children: I put this up behalf of, and in honor of, somebody special I referenced on an earlier post a while back who stood up and fought for antiviolence, antiracism, and antidiscrimination for all–and taught many, whose main philosophy was about empowerment through education and always “passing it forward” (and besides, haven’t put a tune up for while…): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsfS2PNPRgs (this may be completely over the heads of many, that’s okay…some may not like it—don’t listen)

    And a source for empowerment for those who need it, or to learn how to empower for those who are clueless (there are numerous good sites, but I put this one up because too often folks are blind to the signs for victims who spend significant time in their second most important environments—work, or of the like) (can also google “power and control wheels” there are many….): http://www.valueoptions.com/clients/Initiatives/spotlight_domvio/htmlpages/about.htm

    And while gender biased (it was made a while back, but still makes a strong statement), an informative poster that lets victims know they are in a safe place with out them having to say a word, and one that may make some perpetrators think—even if only for a second, and public statement attesting DV/SA will not be tolerated for anybody interested (proceeds go to a good cause): http://shop.ncadv.org/inc/sdetail/179

  7. Chelsea L.

    I think that this article brings up several good points. With men trying to be that masculine figure that we all grow up learning about it leads to cases such as this with mass killings and unnecessary harm to our country. With the stereotypes that men have to uphold this strong, in control, aggressiveness makes it seem like playing with guns and doing all these “manly” activities that it is okay to act in these ways. Unfortunately it can get to the point such as the Virginia Tech incident where people just take things to an extreme and whether they can control this masculine behavior or not they come out and do something that severely hurts others. Very seldom do people hear about someone being too feminine and going out on mass killings, but why do we have these stereotypes in the first place. However, knowing that things are they way they are it would probably be a good idea to make some sort of laws that can help with the buying of guns and “masculine weapons” so that when men are trying to prove that they are in power things such as mass shootings don’t occur. Is there some reason that a man or a woman has to act a specific way just because that is the way that these ideas used to be perceived? Not only does masculinity focus on men, but now women are beginning to take on more masculine roles in society than every before with new opportunities in the workplace and even in relationships. This shows that the masculine stereotype is now just spreading and leaving the door open for more unfortunate opportunities. The difference is knowing right from wrong, but while growing up for say children when they see adults going shooting at the range or hunting season, how are they supposed to know the difference between right and wrong to using a gun and shooting. When reading articles such as this where it also has a lot to do with race I think that it’s a shame. I feel like we have come so far in this country that it should be okay that men, women, Asians, African Americans, whatever you may be that should hold no end to the possibilities in your future. If you are good at something and want to make something of yourself you should be able to without the criticism and stereotypes that you have to act or perform in a specific way.


  1. EXISTENTIAL ANGST GAME STRESSFUL: thegoddamazon: daniellemertina: karnythia: Ever notice how there’s no… |

Leave a Reply