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The Connection Between White Men, Aggrievement, and Mass Shootings

Downward social mobility and scapegoating are inspiring white men to commit atrocities.
A painted rock sits outside one of the makeshift memorials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 27th, 2018.

A painted rock sits outside one of the makeshift memorials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 27th, 2018.

Last month, two seemingly unrelated bits of news came to light. The first was that Nikolas Cruz had etched Nazi swastikas into the ammunition magazines he used in the school shooting that claimed 17 lives in Parkland, Florida. The second was that the United States' white jail population doubled from 1990 to 2013, according to analysis conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, a research non-profit that studies the criminal justice system.

The thread that connects these two stories is aggrievement, and it offers a unique insight into the cause of mass shootings—at least 57 percent of which are committed by white men, according to data from Mother Jones. The perpetuation of these crimes is deeply entangled with both the actual and perceived downward mobility of white men, as well as their mistaken attribution of that decline to African Americans, feminists, immigrants, and other "boogeymen" of social justice movements.

Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University, examined "aggrieved entitlement" in his 2013 book Angry White Men. He defines aggrieved entitlement as a deal between white men and the nation, which they feel the nation has reneged on.

"These white men made a bargain with American society, which is, if I do all of these things that you've asked me to do—be solid, responsible, tax-paying, hard-working citizens—then I should expect to get these rewards," Kimmel tells me. Those rewards include societal markers such as home ownership and wages high enough to support a family on a single income.

But those supposed promises have not been fulfilled. According to data from the Census Bureau, homeownership rates for non-Hispanic whites has been falling since at least 2004, while the number of white dual-income families has grown by almost 34 percent since 1980—a reflection of economic necessity as much as feminist independence.

An artificially adopted sense of victimhood is a common theme, says Mike King, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State University who has written extensively on the subject of white identity politics. King says that, in the pursuit of reclaiming the ostensible ability to play the part of the marginalized, aggrieved white men fail to see that the very people they're angry with are suffering from the same failures and consequences of a broken system.

"Real problems that face working people of all races—de-unionization, drug addiction, suicide, mass incarceration, family disintegration, foreclosure or loss of home equity, underemployment or delayed retirement, increasing costs of health care and education, the mounting impacts of environmental crisis, and a lack of real political power—these problems are not addressed by aggrieved whiteness," King says.

"It's not immigrants who are responsible for climate change, it's not LGBT people who outsourced their jobs, it's not feminist women who issued those predatory loans," Kimmel adds. "They're rightfully angry, but they're delivering their mail to the wrong address."

The fallout from these broken promises manifests instead in a host of other ways. Middle-aged white men are the fastest-growing segment of the population committing suicide. But that rage and despair can also be turned outward—such as with the rise in economic property crimes, like burglary, larceny, and theft, being perpetrated by white men.

Often, this anger is directed at fellow victims rather than the true perpetrators. Whereas the school shooters of yesterday were committing "suicide by mass murder"—that is, murdering as many people as possible before being gunned down by the police or killing themselves—a newer breed of school shooters is operating more along the lines of Anders Breivik, the neo-Nazi who killed 77 people in a joint bombing and mass shooting in Norway. Breivik's behavior—one that didn't end in his own suicide—is echoed in the actions of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and Cruz, who had expressed hatred for African Americans, Hispanic people, and homosexuals prior to his shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

"These guys don't want to die, they want to see the fruits of their labor," Kimmel says. "They want to ignite a civil war that they want to watch. They want to be hailed as heroes for starting things."

The victims of aggrieved whiteness, then, are the victims of white supremacy, whether they be African-American churchgoers in Charleston, or the mostly white students in Parkland. When all of the forces of progress—from Black Lives Matter activists to Women's Marchers to Dreamers—are supposedly conspiring against you, everyone is the enemy.