White Men as the Major “Social Problem”By
Journalist and commentator David Sirota has an interesting piece about the reaction to some statements about the role of white men as the typical killers in the mass murders like the ones in Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown which he made in an MSNBC commentary and interview with Chris Hayes:
I said that because most of the mass shootings in America come at the hands of white men, there would likely be political opposition to initiatives that propose to use those facts to profile the demographic group to which these killers belong. I suggested that’s the case because as opposed to people of color or, say, Muslims, white men as a subgroup are in such a privileged position in our society that they are the one group that our political system avoids demographically profiling or analytically aggregating in any real way. Indeed, unlike other demographic, white guys as a group are never thought to be an acceptable topic for any kind of critical discussion whatsoever, even when there is ample reason to open up such a discussion.
Calling out white men, and most especially elite white men, as a/the social or political problem is something I have written and lectured on for many years now, but it is still very rare for anyone, commentator or researcher, to even go as far as Sirota does in this important Salon article.
Toward the end of the article even he starts backing off on some of the logical implications of calling out white men and insisting that he is not calling for racial profiling of white men as potential killers. He notes that the current tempered and nuanced conversation of these mass killings is only occurring because “white guys” are the (usually unremarked upon) demographic so dramatically involved:
But the point here is that those tempered and nuanced conversations are only able to happen because the demographic at the center of it all is white guys. That is the one group in America that gets to avoid being referred to in aggregate negative terms (and gets to avoid being unduly profiled by this nation’s security apparatus), which means we are defaulting to a much more dispassionate and sane conversation — one that treats the perpetrators as deranged individuals, rather than typical and thus stereotype-justifying representatives of an entire demographic.
In my White Men on Race (With E. O’Brien) and The White Racial Frame book (soon out in a second edition in February) I have argued that these discussions such as Sirota raises barely begin to raise the issue of the role and significance of white men, particularly elite white men, in creating and maintaining our system of racial oppression, and the supporting social, political, and economic institutions that operate to protect that systemic racism and its white male regulators.
Here is a very brief overview of some historical points I make in that white frame book about that political background and current political reality:
The “founding fathers” created a U.S. origins narrative that was (and still is) substantially mythological, a story in which a mostly anti-democratic, often slaveholding, group of elite white men were said to be heroes championing ideals of equality and democracy for a new United States. These elite leaders created an imagined community, that is, a heralded “democratic” society in which all Americans supposedly shared comradeship. However, contrary to this mythology, the U.S. Constitution did not create a democracy where most adult Americans had the right to participate substantially and freely in political institutions. Native Americans and African Americans, constituting at least a fifth of the population, were excluded. (So were all women) As Vincent Harding has put it, the U.S. constitutional convention was “more like a poorly attended dress rehearsal, with most of the rightful and necessary performers and creators barred from the stage.”
From the beginning, the democratic rhetoric was usually more about public relations and the interests of the white elite than about creating actual democratic institutions. The new U.S. society was highly inegalitarian, with extreme inequality across the color line. The new United States was mostly led by white men who were overt white supremacists. It was a society that had no sense of shared comradeship among its white, black, and Native American residents. In 1843 no less a figure than former president and then member of Congress, John Quincy Adams, asserted in a congressional speech that the United States had never been a democracy because it had long been effectively controlled by a few thousand slaveholders. In this founding era U.S. political institutions were often openly proslavery, and an overtly white supremacist framing and dominance were asserted by many white leaders through these institutions until the ending of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s.
Things mostly did not get better over time, as (especially elite) white men stayed completely in control of major institutions:
During the slavery and Jim Crow eras, the Supreme Court was a clear manifestation of white dominance, for only elite white men served on it. Examining the justices’ decisions on racial matters during most of the legal segregation era, one finds that they regularly reflect the dominant white-racist framing and routinely ignore or dismiss the civil rights counter-frames of Americans of color. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, Supreme Court decisions regularly eroded the civil rights that African Americans had theoretically gained under the 14th and 15th amendments that were added to the U.S. Constitution in the Reconstruction era. In the influential 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, a nearly unanimous court (one dissenter) upheld a Louisiana law requiring white-black segregation in public accommodations.
Things changed only because of centuries of protest by Americans of color, and then only as allowed by elite white men once again:
To the present day, the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court decisions interpreting it—almost all made over centuries by elite white men—have greatly shaped the basic contours of the legal and political systems, as well as other societal institutions. Important changes in the system of oppression, such as the official ending of Jim Crow in the 1960s, have come only when many whites have believed those changes to be in their group interest—that is, when there is what Derrick Bell has called “interest convergence” between the interests of the racially oppressed and the interests of whites, especially some in the white male elite.
When will any of the mainstream media call out and discuss various (elite) white male “social problems,” including problems of mass violence like at Newtown, as often and openly as they now do for non-white-male groups?
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