I have been profiled my entire life as innocent. When disruptive in class, I was told that I was eccentric, that I needed to work on my focus. Growing up, I looked for fights and conflicts yet I never fit the profile of a juvenile delinquent. The chip on my shoulder never signified a thug; I was just a kid with a bad temper who needed to mature and grow out of it.
When I was pulled over in Emeryville, CA for speeding for several miles and asked multiple times by the police officer if there was a reason for my speeding, I told him the truth. “Officer, my ice cream is melting.”
No stop and frisk. No pretext stop. No humiliating search. No fear of how to hold my hands. No ticket. I, like Adam Lanza and James Holmes, the two most notorious mass shooters of the past year, am white male privilege personified. We are humanized and given voice and innocence over and over again.
The most recent shooting in Newtown highlights whiteness and the ways it has been rendered invisible after every mass shooting. Described as a “nerd,” who “still wears a pocket protector,” Adam Lanza has been reimagined as a character straight out of The Revenge of the Nerds series and not a cold-blood killer. He carried a brief case, not a gun; he read The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men, not Guns and Ammo; he wore button down polos, not fatigues. His life was not extraordinary but was that of an average kid. From the reading list to the sartorial choices we have been sold a Normal Rockwell painting. The Associated Press painted a picture of Adam that imaged him as a character ripped out of a Brady Bunch script: “He was an honors student who lived in a prosperous neighborhood with his mother, a well-liked woman who enjoyed hosting dice games and decorating the house for the holidays.”
While identified as “reclusive,” and “shy,” as “quiet and reserved,” as “weird” and a “loner” outcast, Lanza has been consistently described as an average kid who had problems and difficulties. At worst, he was odd and painfully shy. “He didn’t have any friends, but he was a nice kid if you got to know him,” said Kyle Kromberg. “He didn’t fit in with the other kids. He was very, very shy.” Yet, the constant quest to figure out what caused him to snap, to speculate about the effects of his parents’ divorce or medications, all refashions Lanza as a good kid, a victim of sorts. He just snapped so there must have been a reason. Yes, he was strange, but do good (white, suburban, upper-middle class) kids shoot up an elementary school? Thus, reports the New York Post: “Bloodthirsty child killer Adam Lanza might have snapped, and carried out his unspeakable atrocities after learning that his mom wanted him thrown in the loony bin, according to published reports today.”
The narrative following Adam Lanza and Newtown might as well recycled the media coverage surrounding James Holmes and the Aurora, Colorado shooting. Described as “smart” and quiet, as “nice,” and “easy-going,” the narrative sought to not only humanize James Holmes, but also imagine him as good at his core. It worked to tell a story of a normal kid, whose life turned toward evil for some yet-to-be-explained reason.
Sympathetic and identifiable, Holmes was depicted as Beaver Cleaver for most of his life. Anthony Mai, a longtime family friend, told the Los Angeles Times: “I saw him as a normal guy, an everyday guy, doing everyday things.” Like many others in the community, he is “very shy, well-mannered young man who was heavily involved in their local Presbyterian church.” The AP similarly depicted Holmes as a cross between Norman Rockwell, Jason, and Opie. Mind you the extent of its evidence comes from someone who had a beer with him at a local bar. “We just talked about football. He had a backpack and geeky glasses and seemed like a real intelligent guy and I figured he was one of the college students.” Can you imagine having your identity reduced to a single meeting at a bar? Sure, he was quirky, and a bit of a “loner” but he was a “reserved” and “respectful” “kid.”
Because these are told as stories of individuals with specific reasons for killing others, there is no reason to talk about race, class, or gender; there is no reason to talk about society, nor is there any reason to think that Aurora, Newtown, or Columbine are becoming Chicago or Detroit.
“Stuff like this does not happen in Newtown,” Renee Burn reminded America. Stephen Delgiadice shared a similar level of shock: “It’s alarming, especially in Newtown, Connecticut, which we always thought was the safest place in America.” Reflecting a level of acceptance of violence elsewhere, bloodshed in their own white and middle-class neighborhoods, call into question the utopic fantasy promulgated by many in white suburbia. “We thought it was safe here,” reflected Mike Hajzer. “But it’s not so true. It’s as if nowhere is safe.”
Adam Lanza killed 26 people; he destroyed the lives of many, but he also put in jeopardy the dreams and fallacies that led many to the suburbs. He put the allure and meaning of whiteness in jeopardy. “Is there anything more innocent than a child eating popcorn and sipping Coke with the lights of a movie screen reflecting off his face?” wrote Bert Weissafter the shooting in Aurora. “Is there any place I can feel my children are totally safe? Rather than being excited to share this movie together, now I’ll spend a considerable amount of time addressing what happened in that theater with my sons. Frankly, I wish someone could explain it to me. As a parent, I wish I could postpone the reality of conversations like this for just a little longer; keep my kids innocent for as long as possible.”
Ian Landau further captures this sense of innocence lost that pervades the media coverage in the aftermath of shootings in Aurora. He laments the lost sense of security, community, and the reason to live in places like Aurora and Newtown. “Traditionally in America movie theaters are a safe, family environment where everybody goes and settles down into the dark,” notes New York Psychiatrist Alan Manevitz. “You can watch a scary movie because you know you’re safe in the movie theater and can enjoy the experience. The Aurora shooting has suddenly turned that upside down. That presumption of safety gets shattered and you feel the vulnerability at that moment.”
The “it’s suppose to happen” in inner-city communities reframe is not surprising. Places like Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown exist because of the fear-industrial complex. The white middle-class flocked from cities into the suburbs and rural communities partially due to fear of black and Latino youth, integrated schools, and urban crime. The continuously deployed the narrative of “it’s not suppose to happen in Newtown” and their neighborhoods mirroring “American family’s dream” embodies this entrenched belief. The efforts to imagine Holmes and Lanza as good kids turned evil, to scour the earth for reasons and potential solutions, works to preserve the illusion of safety, the allure of white suburbia, and the power of whiteness.
In imagining the killers as good kids who did a bad thing, who snapped because of a divorce, because of too much medication, because of inadequate mental health treatment, because of too much mental health care, because of guns, and because of who knows what, white manhood — the visible link that binds together so many of these shootings –always gets erased.
“Do you also think it’s odd that white men commit the overwhelming majority of mass murders,” wondered Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Senior Director of Advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, “but that people don’t identify that as a causal factor? Instead we talk about mental illness and gun control. If it were Asian women or Jewish men or elderly African-American, it would be topic number one. But not white men.” In fact, the media response to mass shootings often reimagines white men as victims.
The national spectacle and the hyper focus on Newtown and Aurora especially in comparison to the scant coverage afforded to murders in Chicago or drone deaths in South Waziristan points to the value of whiteness. School shootings and other mass killings matter when there are white victims. Whiteness is thus reimagined as under attack. White suburban kids, white suburban families, white suburban communities and even white shooters are the victims—victims of Hollywood, victims of gun laws that don’t allow them to protect themselves in every context, victims of removal of prayer from public schools, and victims of soiling culture.
The consequences are clear in Newtown and Aurora, yet these are not the only victims. The killers themselves are reconstituted as victims. Arguing that, “maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline” and that “things are looking up” for women and people of color, Christy Wampole concludes that the Sandy Hook shooting was the consequences of the waning privileges afforded to white males:
Because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males. . . . Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.
While embodying “White delusional disorder,” and seemingly arguing that resistance to patriarchy, white supremacy, and homophobia has produced a generation of angry white males ready to shoot, Wampole yet again imagines whiteness as the default victim.
According to Danny Hoey, Assistant Professor of English at Indian River State College, the insatiable quest for explanation as to why the ubiquitous industry committed to uncovering motives, reasons and mitigating factors leads us to a clear conclusion: white men are victims and they are under attack: “So, naturally, we are supposed to forgive white males who commit mass murder because they feel as if they have lost their privilege? White America constructs victim narratives around itself to explain and rationalize its own failures.” The kids who died in Newtown, and in other schools are victims, but the threat to them, to society, wasn’t Adam Lanza or James Holmes.
Yet, we look elsewhere. We look for excuses and make moves to reposition whiteness as victim needing protection. We use moments of tragedy to reassert the value in whiteness and the importance in protecting white bodies. We work to ‘blame’ something or someone other than Mr. Holmes, Mr. Lanza, Mr. Klebold, and countless others? With a narrative about” good kids” in hand and an insatiable need to ask, “Why?” and “How could he have done such a thing?” we continually imagine violence, barbarism, and terror elsewhere. White Americans like to think of this kind of violence as an anathema to who we are as a country and as a culture and are reluctant to think that someone like those all American kids, like our kids, like us, could be mass murdering monsters living in our midst. In reality, this kind of violence is in many ways a part of our violent history and culture. We have to accept that there is a “typical” face of mass murder in the United States – it is not the black kid killing people in gang shootings, the Mexican cartel member, or the “Muslim terrorist.” It can be, often is, will probably remain the innocent, white, suburban boy next door.
I was the boy next door, schooled in America’s pedagogy of racial stereotypes, fear, and racism. Dropping off my friend in East Los Angeles, or visiting another friend in Gardena, CA often resulted in family members and white friends telling me “to be safe.” I recall one instance where I dropped my friend off, only to ask him to watch me to drive off to make sure I was safe. I wanted him to make sure that I was safe. Privilege, stereotypes and irrational fear were on full display. I fear, I profiled, and I lived within America’s racial logic. Yet, the danger to white America, to the nation, then and now, was not the black or Latino gangster, or the Muslim terrorist, but the white man who is capable of unimaginable death and destruction, the white man, who we will go to all lengths to embrace as our own, who we will continually aid and abet with innocence.
David J. Leonard is associate professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of “Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema” and “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press).”