On December 9, 2009, Amber Cummings walked into her husband’s bedroom and fired two bullets into his head while he slept, then fled with her 9-year-old daughter to a neighbor’s home and called police. On January 8, 2010, Cummings appeared in court and received a suspended sentence for the killing. In granting the suspended sentence, the judge said that James Cummings had subjected his wife and their daughter to years of extreme abuse. What’s noteworthy in the story for discussing here is this bit about James Cummings:
“The killing drew the FBI’s attention after Nazi mementos, radioactive materials and instructions on how to build a ‘dirty bomb’ were found in their home. ….Her husband was angered by Barack Obama’s election as president and the bomb-making materials were discovered near the time of Obama’s inauguration… “
James Cummings, then, gets added to the growing list of white people – mostly white men – who are so angered by the election of black president that they are contemplating resorting to violence. Amber Cummings reported feeling an “escalating sense of doom” about her husband’s plans to set off large scale destruction and his increasing abuse of her and their daughter. Following the sentencing, Amber Cummings referred to her husband as “mentally ill,” and that’s undoubtedly one part of the explanation for his behavior. I also want to offer another explanation that directly takes into account race, gender and sexuality. James Cummings’ abusive treatment of his wife and daughter and his white supremacy are connected to more mainstream manifestations of gender and racial entitlement.
Entitlement is the sense that one is deserving of some particular reward or benefit. In many ways, gender and racial entitlement are a defining characteristic of white men in contemporary U.S. society, whether as “white saviors” in popular culture or as “masters of the universe” in banking, white men – by their own words – see themselves as those who are most entitled to material wealth and psycho-sexual power over individual women and children. Yet, if anyone dares to point this out, there are lots of people – frequently white women – who are eager to call this is “lunacy.”
Examples from the mainstream of this sort of connection between gender and racial entitlement abound, but there is a very recent one in the news that makes this point quite nicely. John Mayer, a white male, a pop singer, most known for his ballad “Wonderland,” and for dating actress Jennifer Anniston. Mayer is about as far away from the popular notion of a ‘white supremacist’ as anyone would imagine. He’s also not visibly mentally ill. In a recent interview for Playboy magazine (to understand how the underpinnings of this magazine’s founding in a sense of male entitlement, read: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Hearts of Men), Mayer revealed perhaps more than he intended. When asked if he dated black women (actually, the interviewer revealed his own racial/gender assumptions by asking “do black women throw themselves at you?”), Mayer’s answer was no, because his (male member) “is sort of like a white supremacist,” and went on to refer to it as “David Duke.” While Mayer’s racist response has quite reasonably offended lots of people and he’s apologized for the interview, it’s emblematic of the same sort of intertwined gender and racial entitlement that extreme white supremacists like Cummings exhibit. Interestingly, while Mayer is not being portrayed as “mentally ill” for his statements in the interview, at least one report attributes his remarks to the fact that he was drinking Scotch during the interview, which brings me back to the putatively mentally ill James Cummings.
Entitlement, in its extreme form, is often associated with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and this may have been part of what went so terribly awry with James Cummings. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss this story as merely a personal tragedy separate and apart from a broader social and political context. In that broader context, white men have a disproportionate amount of resources, wealth and privilege and feel entitled to it. Like the old joke that Jim Hightower used to tell about George W. Bush, “he was born on third base and think he hit a triple.” That’s the essence of entitlement. Whether or not Amber Cummings did the only thing she could by killing her husband, I don’t know. The fact Amber Cummings took extreme action to save her daughter and herself from – and possibly lots of other people – from her husband’s excessive sense of aggrieved entitlement and violent tendencies is a symptom of a larger set of social conditions.
Updated (Friday, 2/12/10): Another name to add to the growing list of angry, violent white men: Gregory Girard, a Massachusetts technology consultant who said he feared an imminent “Armageddon” and appears to have been active in the Tea Party movement, was found with a stash of military grade weapons, explosive devices including tear gas and pepper ball canisters, camouflage clothing, knives, handcuffs, bulletproof vests and helmets, and night vision goggles, reports TPM. Online news reports I found did not mention whether Mr. Girard was married, or whether his wife was also heavily armed.