We have have talked about the relationship between White Masculinity and mass shootings here on We Are Respectable Negroes a great deal. In the aftermath of the Aurora and Newtown massacres, the challenging (for some) observation that white men are grossly over-represented among spree shooters--yet, this obvious fact goes little discussed--was also picked up by the national media.
While the Nova special does some good work, it is also a rich and profound example of the white racial frame in practice.
NOVA's narrative humanizes the adolescent white male spree shooter by discussing the motivations which drive their behavior. The Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown murderers are troubled souls whose behavior could be understood, and perhaps even prevented, if their parents, other adults, or medical caregivers picked up on the warning signs.
In the middle of the documentary, it also offers up an explanation for why spree shooters commit their wanton violence: many of them are frustrated, angry, and are desperate for attention. The world is theirs; however, these children of privilege feel frustrated, put upon, bullied and marginalized. This is almost precisely the language of "aggrieved entitlement" that William Hamby discussed in his controversial essay, "Connecticut Shooting, White Males, and Mass Murder."
NOVA offers no acknowledgement of that fact, or how race could be central to the story of mass shooting violence, as opposed to invisible in it.
The NOVA special also makes good use of the language which is routinely used to idealize "normal" white domesticity. These mass shooters come from "tight-knit" communities. They are "good kids" who somehow went "wrong."
The "our" kids "next door" is a use of language which is rarely marked or identified as wholly subjective, and an example of how the universal "I" legitimates and normalizes a very particularly narrow type of Whiteness--so powerful this social construct is, that it is operative even in discussions of the maladaptive and deviant white masculinity common to killers such as Adam Lanza and James Holmes.
Moreover, how often are the violent behaviors of inner city black youth explored, with soul-searching, and efforts to understand their mental health? Not often.
People of color are pathological and criminal; white youth who kill people by the dozens are to be understood and reflected upon. White society asks, "how and why could people like "us" do such a thing?" The Other is deviant by nature and their crimes are an example of their real, true, self. In all, for those not in the in-group (e.g. black and brown folks, Arabs and Muslims) "bad culture" yields an expected outcome.
NOVA does include some brown and black youth in its visit to
That move is an act of intellectual dishonesty by the directors, editors, and writers of NOVA that also furthers the white racial frame and the normativity of Whiteness.
Why would I make such a strong claim?
"Mind of a Rampage Killer" could have easily explored some obvious questions.
The shooters in the first part of the show, the communities in which they live, and their parents, are almost exclusively white. The young people NOVA is profiling and interviewing at the Mendota Youth Center are all black.
Is there something systematically different about the behavior of the white spree shooters than the young people of color being featured here? What do we make of the fact that the mass shooters discussed in the documentary, and also in society more generally, are almost all white and male? If the claims about brain structure and cognitive processes are true, then why does one cohort of young white men commit this type of crime at rates far exceeding that of other groups? Does this fact undercut the claims about the brain science and violence, or are there are factors at work?
I can anticipate a reasonable response by the creators of NOVA. "We were trying to be inclusive and to talk about how violence of this type cuts across lines of race."
I would respond that in their efforts to be "inclusive" they flattened the distinctions and differences, likely very meaningful ones, between the young people in their story. Colorblindness can do the work of racial inequality and White Privilege. The young black and brown youth at Mendota did not kill dozens of people. Was this because of opportunity, resources, culture, or identity? Race is a variable here that should be engaged and not avoided as Americans ask hard questions about Whiteness, White Masculinity, and mass gun violence.
"Mind of a Rampage Killer" closed with Liza Long, the parent who wrote the much emailed "I am Adam Lanza's Mother." There she bravely took on the task of defending the Newtown murderer's mother's difficult predicament in raising a deeply troubled young child. Long offered up a potent and powerful narrative that explored the day-to-day life of a parent who loves a dangerous and quite mentally ill child. She is very brave and patient. I commend her persistence.
But again, which "type" of mother in American society is more likely to be depicted as idealized and worthy of both empathy and sympathy? Liza Long's child is clearly and demonstrably a threat to himself and to others. He is so dangerous that his mother shares with the interviewer how she keeps a box of knives and other sharp objects in a Tupperware container under the seat of the car, for fear that her child will get access to them if they were in the home.
Race, gender, and other identities come together in how such socially powerful identities as motherhood and fatherhood are constructed and understood. Would a black woman whose kid had access to an arsenal in the home, and who she taught to shoot, be depicted in a sympathetic way like Adam Lanza's mother? Would a Latina whose kid was known and documented to be a violent threat to others be shown in the narrative of a documentary as a good soul who is overwhelmed by the circumstances? Would the mother of an Arab or Muslim kid who is as dangerous and potentially violent as the white male spree shooters shown on NOVA, be shown in a kind light, or would she just be the mother of a potential "terrorist?"
In a society where the white racial frame is dominant, and one which is structured in systems that perpetuate and maintain White Privilege, those are questions that most white folks (and some others) do not want to confront or engage. NOVA's "Mind of a Rampage Killer" was a good and necessary effort. It also could have been much improved by attending to some basis questions about race and racial difference. Yes, "we" are all the same; "we" are also very much different too in terms of our social experiences, and the value and meaning placed on our lives and personhood.
Ultimately, by ignoring and avoiding basic questions about the relationship between gun violence, Whiteness, and masculinity, White Privilege hurts white folks and people of color too. Rather than exposing the particular intersections (and complications) of race and mass gun violence, PBS missed a great opportunity to engage in some truth-telling (and teaching) in the service of the Common Good.