Stoking toxic white masculinity or why we’re going postal

Go on. Take a look at Mother Jones’s Google sheet showing mass shootings in the United States.

The spreadsheet starts in 1982. Prior to that these were rarely a problem. Since then incidents of mass homicide by gun have increased in general year by year, with the number of fatalities and injured increasing too, often exponentially.

As I have noted before, in most cases the perpetrator was male and white. Of the 91 major incidents noted, a woman carried out only 2. A man and a woman carried one out. There are a scattering of these attacks carried out by Asians and blacks, but 80% or more were perpetrated by white men.

The spreadsheet does not begin to capture the extent of the problem, but does document the worst of the worst. Business Insider notes that through September there have been 273 mass shootings in the United States in 2017, which averages out to about one a day. They are so common they rarely make it beyond the local paper.

Obviously something is going on in our culture, even beyond the looser gun laws that we have now compared with 1982. A postal employee carried one of these first major incidents out. In 1986 postal worker Patrick Sherrill killed 15 and injured 6 others in a post office in Edmond, Oklahoma and then killed himself. Since then workplace shootings have become common, as the spreadsheet attests. There was another “gone postal” incident in 1991 that killed 5 and injured 5, this one from a laid off postal worker. In 2006 a forcibly retired and mentally ill woman killed 8 at her former post office in Goleta, California.

It’s hard to draw causation from correlation. But in general things were okay until around 1980. In 1981 Americans elected Ronald Reagan. He was the first president since Roosevelt to fundamentally change the implicit American “contract”. He quickly demonstrated the change by firing air traffic controllers who went on strike. Prior to Reagan it was generally possible for a man to provide for his family. Since then obviously many more women have entered the workforce. Women are often paid less than men for the same work, an obvious cost savings to employers. The man as family breadwinner slowly went the way of the milkman. This made men, particularly white men, feel disenfranchised. It was like living in a Twilight Zone.

Republicans piled it on in two ways. First, they promoted the idea of rugged individualism. They said men (particularly white men) should all be Marlboro men. We were all cowboys of sorts: loners, independent and self-sufficient. Only loser men couldn’t step up to the plate and provide for their family when necessarily.

Second, Republicans appealed to racists. Until the last election it was rarely overt. Nixon famously won based on a “southern strategy” which amounted to getting support from white Southerners that had previously voted Democratic. Southerners were played for their racist tendencies, just not overtly. Their prejudices were masterfully channeled against the “others” which amounted to people not like them: not white and working class.

At the same time they (often with the help of Democrats like Bill Clinton) unleashed forces that undercut their prosperity. They pushed right to work laws that had the effect of cutting wages by making it hard to collectively organize. They unleashed the forces of the free market that quickly found cheaper places to manufacture stuff, mostly outside the United States, jobs traditionally held mostly by white men. These actions exacerbated the tensions on the white working class, and white men in particular. I have seen these tensions borne out in my own family and among my friends. Many rightly feel shafted by what happened to them, particularly during economic downturns. More often they simply feel ashamed, as if there is some defect in them.

If your economic floor drops out from under you, your social safety net is shredded, you learn that you can’t provide for your family but you feel that you must do so anyhow and thus your status in society is dropping you are going to be severely stressed.

The NRA masterfully harnessed this anxiety by promoting a gun culture, not to emphasize sporting, but to sell the illusion that with a gun at least a man can still be a man. This anxiety is hardly covert. We saw it recently in Charlottesville. White men, self-identified Nazis and white supremacists were chanting, “You will not replace us”. They were asserting their special status as white men and those they saw responsible for their decline (such as Jews) would pay the price, perhaps with the guns they openly carried.

Now Donald Trump promises to make America great again. He rose to power on this very anxiety. Of course since becoming president he’s gone out of his way to not address these problems but to actually make them worse. Just yesterday Congress passed a bill that won’t permit consumers to file class action lawsuits against their banks. Vice President Pence broke the tie vote.

This though is pretty minor stuff compared to the way Trump is undermining Obamacare. It makes health insurance ever more costly and problematic, and if the government won’t subsidize it for middle and lower income Americans it becomes largely unaffordable again. This simply feeds more economic anxieties.

Trump though doesn’t seem too worried. He’s got a great game of distraction going on where he puts the blame on others, like undocumented workers. Even Congress is getting into the game. A tax reform package in Congress proposes to limit deductions into 401K plans. This amounts to a tax increase on the middle and lower class, all to give tax cuts to the richest Americans. Trump and Republicans believe — probably with good justification — that they can keep their base distracted and blame others for their policies that make things worse for their base.

All this really does is make bad much worse. The fundamentals of our economic and social anxiety haven’t changed and Republicans are actively trying to worsen them. The working class will still get fleeced. As for this Mother Jones table of mass shootings, it’s pretty easy to predict the number of incidents and their lethality will continue to increase as our politicians throw ever more wood onto this ever bigger bonfire of anxiety and hate.

Danger: white male

Since I’m a white male, I’m starting to think that maybe I need to be profiled and tracked. It seems like we white males as a class are pretty dangerous critters. Maybe we need a tag, neuter and release program. (Good news: I’m already neutered.) These days it seems like any one of us white males could go off like Vesuvius at any moment and probably take out a dozen or more innocent bystanders in the process. Of course we’ll use a gun, a semi-automatic one if we can get one. It makes killing strangers so much faster and lethal. Not a problem, according to the NRA and, hey, Buy American!

I know what you are thinking: “Mark, what the heck are you talking about? It’s the black males that are being tracked and profiled mostly because it’s black males that are committing most of these crimes. Why should a relatively prosperous, older, white guy like you be thought suspicious?”

Dear reader, it’s because it’s us white guys that are most likely to pop their gaskets and do crazy stuff. You know something is up when you encounter this statistic: white men make up 36% of the population but cause 75% of mass shootings. I may be out of the woods, as I am pushing sixty, living in Massachusetts and my testosterone levels are now officially low. If you are looking out for dangerous men though you’d be smart to profile us white guys. I can see it now: police cruisers driving around bowling alleys and American Legion halls and pushing around white guys in undershirts with rolled up shirtsleeves. Particularly when we are in our early manhood years, we can be teakettles on high boil without a ventilation hole. But it’s also possible we’ll go postal if we feel we are victimized, unloved or suffered one too many misfortunes. We are white men, after all. If there is supposed to be one privileged class in the United States, we’re it. After all, all but one of our presidents was a white guy.

It seems though that surging with testosterone and a sense of entitlement, psychologically we white men are more often on a hair trigger. I base this in part on my own personal experience. Ages eighteen to 22 were particularly challenging for me. My testosterone levels could not have been higher. There were times when walking down a hallway I would literally shake from another testosterone surge. I’d ache for the intimate touch of a woman (never forthcoming) the way an alcoholic craves that next spot of gin. I was reading arguably crazy and wacky books like this one and that one and kind of accepting them. Eventually my hormone levels receded to the point I realized I felt embarrassed that I even took those books seriously. (I’m wondering if Rand Paul’s hormones are still surging. I mean, Atlas Shrugged? Grow up!) To quote the musician Meat Loaf, I was “all revved up with no place to go”, just like Dylann Roof. I obviously did not go psycho but it’s not like the occasional psycho thought did not pass my mind. Sometimes they frequently passed through my mind. Lots of days I battled an inner rage masked by weak smiles and hiding behind books.

So if you want to talk about who’s likely to be a deadly and homicidal wacko, it’s hard not to single out us white guys. I think Americans tend to deny the obvious because there are so many of us. It also helps to be the sex and race that basically runs most of the United States. I might add that as a class we aren’t doing a great job of it. It’s hard to imagine that any other class of people couldn’t do a better job of running the country.

And then there’s the stuff we do just to get attention. Of course there are the stupid jock tricks, puking our guts out, harassing women, drag racing on public streets, knocking over mailboxes and plastering graffiti, which is actually the more benign stuff. When it comes to the really wacko stuff though, white males are Number One. Take a look at this Wikipedia page of rampages in the Americas and sift through those that occurred in the United States. With a few exceptions, it’s us white guys going postal. Here are a few in the top dozen:

  • James Eagan Holmes, white male, age 24, killed 12 and injured 62 in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. He is just now coming to trial. (I blogged about this one.)
  • George Pierre Hennard killed 23 people and wounded 12 in Killeen, Texas in 1993. He was 35 and white.
  • Michael McLendon, white male, age 28, killed 10 and injured 6 in 2009 in incidents in three cities in Alabama
  • Charles Raymond Starkweather, a white male, age 19, killed 10 people at various places across the United States 1958
  • Michael Allen Silka, age 25, killed 9 and injured 1 in two incidents, one in Alaska and one in Alabama in 1984

I did find a few exceptions. James Edward Pough was black and he killed 11 and injured 6 in Jacksonville, Florida in 1990. Caril Ann Fugate was an accomplice of Charles Starkweather and was only 14 at the time. She holds a dubious record of sorts: the youngest woman to ever be tried and convicted for murder as an adult. Jiverly Wong is sort of white (Vietnamese) and a naturalized American citizen. At age 41, he killed 13 and wounded 4 in Binghamton, New York in 2009.

Anyhow, check out that Wikipedia page. It’s not hard to document that white men, most of them age 30 and younger, were responsible for most of these rampages. Dylann Roof’s recent racist rampage killed nine worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina black church. Guess what? He is a white male, age 21, and a social loaner that is convinced that whites are superior. He says black men are disproportionately raping white women, although there is no evidence to back up this preposterous claim. He also conveniently forgets to mention the raping that often was instigated by white slave holders on their black female “property.” This likely included our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

It’s likely that all men suffer disproportionately from the same tendency, so the roots of these rampages are more likely environmental than genetic. You rarely hear about a woman going postal, even though women tend to suffer more from mental illnesses. I have a number of logical guesses for why white men are usually to blame for these mass murders here in the United States. These include:

  • Expectations for white men are unrealistically high. They are expected to clear more hurdles more regularly than other men and women.
  • White men compete with other white men for social status. Most of us won’t be in the top 10%. It’s hard not to feel inferior or worthless if you are on the left side of the bell curve.
  • The male self-reliance myth that is mostly handed down from father to son, but is also part of the white male culture. When real life shows that we white men are as human, vulnerable and need help and meaningful connections from others like everyone else, it sets up a bad case of cognitive dissonance.

It all amounts to feeling disproportionately inferior and put upon, which can feed introversion and social disconnection. Eventually it leads to hurt feelings, and sometimes the anger we saw on Dylann Roof’s web site. In extraordinary cases it results in a rage so extreme it generates mass homicides of strangers.

It’s these myths imposed as things that white men must live up to that I believe are often triggering these men. Until more white men give up these stereotypes and these myths, more events like the one in Charleston are sadly predictable. Also predictable will be the sex, race and age bracket of the perpetrators.

White males on the decline?

Some time ago, I pilloried Glenn Beck who I said seems obsessively concerned that America is losing its whiteness and hence its fundamental character. America’s innate “whiteness” of course belies the Native Americans who were here before us, the Hispanics who populated the southwest long before our citizens moved west and the millions of slaves we forcibly imported to tend our plantations. White males governed the United States exclusively for a very long time, and the integration of other ethnicities into our power structure has been slow at best. Only recently did we get our first Muslim American in Congress. Despite the presence of many non-whites in our country throughout our history, there is some truth that early Americans largely perceived the United States to be a country by and for white people. Abraham Lincoln was among many presidents who, at least for most of his life, firmly believed this. Until about the time he became president, he believed the final solution to our racial problem was to create a Negro colony somewhere and move American Negroes there. (The bravery of African American troops in the Civil War helped convince him otherwise.)

White (Caucasian) Americans remain in the majority, but by the time I expect to meet my maker, if not before, I will become part of a mere plurality of white Americans. If you follow the demographic trends out a century or so, Hispanics will likely form a new plurality of Americans, and we white Americans will be just another sizeable minority. Like Afrikaners, we are likely to exert a political and financial power that will seem inconsistent with our size.

Or maybe not. Whites may be in the minority someday, but some people are already worried enough to help white men go to college. A few white male students at Texas State University in San Marcos have formed a scholarship fund for Caucasian males. They notice that there are plenty of scholarship funds for other ethnic groups, which is hard to deny. If you are a minority and have the talent, you can probably get a full scholarship. There is also a new fact on college campuses: women now form a majority of students. Maybe white men need some help too, particularly the B-average white male student. To qualify for their scholarships, you need to be only twenty-five percent Caucasian. Their scholarship is hardly generous either, just $500, barely enough to cover the cost of textbooks. This new scholarship fund may be one that is more to make a point than to seriously address a problem of declining enrollment in universities by white males. Their scholarship fund is likely to cause a minor kerfuffle, but it is not illegal. That it occurred first in Texas did not surprise me.

I was one of these young white males thirty-five years ago. I did not have a 4.0 average (3.5, as I recall) but my grades were not stellar enough for me to get any scholarships. I had some money of my own that I painstakingly saved from a job bagging groceries and stocking shelves. My parents contributed about $5000. That wasn’t enough to make it through college, so I compensated by overloading courses during semesters and finally, when all funds were near gone, obtaining a student loan. With such modest financial resources, a private college was unaffordable, but attending a local Florida university was not. However, I did manage to get my degree.

As I moved into my career, I was not aware that I was a benefactor of any white privilege in particular. My moving up the ladder was a struggle and never a given, but I had no way of knowing how hard it was for others. I recall a time early in my federal career when many “career ladder” type jobs were off limits to me. I did not qualify because I was a white male and they were targeted for minorities. I did not feel discriminated against at the time; I just accepted that the government was trying to right wrongs that had existed for centuries in a modest and actually quite limited way. It’s not that all opportunities were off limits, just some.

However, I am now convinced that something is going on with white males, and I don’t think it is good for our country. For better or worse, white males have been our nation’s primary movers and shakers. Increasingly white men are either uninterested in college or simply lack the motivation and/or intelligence to succeed in college. Prosperity and lax parenting may be to blame, resulting in young white males today with a tendency to be overweight, nonathletic and more interested in being online than keeping their noses to the grindstone. Young white males seem to me less focused and have less of a passionate desire to succeed in the past. Women, on the other hand, are realizing that they are better optimized for the new workforce. The new workforce requires those who can seamlessly multi-task and have advanced relational skills. In general, these skills come more naturally to women than to men. Combine natural talents in this area with advanced education (and perhaps the lower wages still unfairly paid to women compared to men) and women become more desirable to employers than equally qualified men do. I have found from my experience that those I admire the most in the workplace tend to be women. Women staff two levels in my management chain. It may be coincidence, but I feel much better managed and more effective with women supervisors and managers than I did for the many men for who I worked. It may be because they see me as a person better than the many men who supervised me over the years.

These factors and likely others appear to be marginalizing the American white male. Also contributing to their problem are fewer blue-collar jobs. What blue-collar jobs that are out there tend to fall into two types: dead end jobs that are mindless and uninspiring and those (like automotive mechanics) that require substantially higher skills than they used to. So if you are unable to make the leap into college or trade school, you are more likely to fall into jobs that are more menial, pay less and are more temporal.

Perhaps this is part of a natural course of events. However, the culture that has traditionally favored and supported the white male seems, if not crumbling, under assault. $500 scholarships are token attempts to call attention a problem that I am convinced is quite real and probably needs attention. I do not think this problem should be addressed at the expense of other minorities. However, white male energy has contributed enormously to our country’s success and may predict our future success. Social scientists should do us a favor by examining the scope of the white male motivation problem, and recommending solutions for policymakers. Whatever we are doing is not working.