Race, Racism & Rampage Shootings

Earlier this week, Omar Thornton walked out of a meeting in which he was being fired from his job at a beer distributor in Connecticut and opened fire on his former co-workers.  He shot 10 people, eventually killing 8 and ending his own life.  Omar Thornton was African American and all of his victims were white.   According to a number of a reports, Thornton said he experienced racial harassment at his workplace at the hands of those co-workers he later gunned down.   In some ways, what Thornton did was exceedingly rare.  In other ways, it was all too common.

(Photo: Jessica Hill/AP)

Rampage shootings are an overwhelmingly white and male phenomenon.  In this way, Thornton stands out as an anomaly.   From Charles Whitman, perhaps the first rampage shooter who climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin and gunned down 14 people in 1966, to James von Brunn who walked into the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum in 2009 and shot a security guard, the perpetrators of rampage shootings are most often white men.   As I noted back in 2009, there’s extensive research linking race, gender and rampage.

Probably the most widely-cited sociological research on this subject is Katherine Newman’s (and co-authors’) 2004 book Rampage Shootings. While Newman et al., do a decent job addressing gender in rampage shootings, there’s very little in the their analysis about race and nothing at all about racism, which is disappointing given that the overwhelming pattern here is that white men are perpetrators.  Exceptions, like Virgnia Tech (where the shooter was Asian American) and this one involving Thornton, only serve to highlight this larger pattern.

What is all too common in this story is the systemic racism that Thornton reportedly endured and the desperation he felt in how to deal with it.  The recording of Thornton’s 911 call (h/t Johnny Eric Williams)   he started shooting offer a glimpse into some of this:

“You probably want to know the reason why I shot this place up. This place is a racist place. They’re treating me bad over here. And treat all other black employees bad over here, too. So I took it to my own hands and handled the problem. I wish I could have got more of the people.”

Thornton’s girlfriend of the past eight years, Kristi Hannah, said he showed her cell phone photos of racist graffiti in the bathroom at the beer company and overheard managers using a racial epithet in reference to him.Another report seems to confirms this assessment of the workplace as a racially hostile environment.  Thornton’s best friend, who chose not to reveal his name, told The New York Daily News that he also used to work at the beer distributor and saw Thornton subjected to racist taunts:

“No one should have had to endure what that company put him through. Stuff on walls. Racist comments. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Ross Hollander, CEO of the beer distributor company, Hartford Distributors, denies any claims of racism in the workplace.  Although racial discrimination in the workplace is illegal, actually proving racial discrimination in the U.S. courts is difficult, sometimes impossible without evidence that the employer intended to discriminate.

The persistent denial of racism by white employers can be a kind of gaslighting for employees who are experiencing that racism.  As Jonathan Metzl notes in his recent book, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease (Beacon Press, 2010), psychiatric professionals began in the 1960s and 1970s to explicitly connect the clinical presentations of African American men with the politics of the civil rights movement in ways that treated aspirations for liberation and civil rights as symptoms of mental illness.   Drapetomania, anyone?   No one’s reporting that Omar Thornton was mentally ill, but in the absence of a recognition that systemic racism exists and without effective means to address that inequality, it’s not inconceivable.

What’s remarkable, in many ways, is that there aren’t more cases like this one.

And, there could have been more such cases given the historical example of the black “armed self-reliance” movement in the 1960s. For example, Robert F. Williams led a chapter of the NAACP in Monroe North Carolina that sought to arm black Americans to fight back aggressively against racist practices and especially against the violence of the Ku Klux Klan.   Robert F. Williams wrote a book called  Negroes with Guns (1961/1989).   He and his followers used machine guns, dynamite, molotov cocktails to fight Klan terrorists.  Williams eventually had to flee the country and ended up in Cuba.  From there, he hosted a radio program, Radio Free Dixie (broadcast from Cuba, but heard up the East Coast).  Timothy B. Tyson has written a book about Williams and his radio broadcast called Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. People forget too that the civil rights leaders–including King, T. Marshall, Daisy Bates, Medgar Evers–had guns or armed guards to protect them in the South during the difficult civil rights struggles.

The tragic shooting in Hartford, Connecticut was both an anomaly, because the shooter was black and the victims white, and part of a larger pattern of systemic racism that is, largely, without redress in this country.