In recent years the United States has seen a wave of mass shootings by white supremacists against racial minorities. Although this is not always the case, Mass shooters are usually young white men.
This argument is not surprising. Throughout U.S. history, white men’s fears about their masculinity and social class help explain many violent attacks on black peoplewhich the perpetrators accuse of denying their rightful privileges.
It was like this This is the case with Dylann Roofa then 22-year-old white supremacist who was convicted and sentenced to death in the deaths of nine black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
In another case with a racist mass shootingPayton Gendron, a white supremacist who believed in a series of racist conspiracy theories he discovered online, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of the 2022 murders of ten Black people at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood had been condemned.
One of these baseless conspiracies that the then 18-year-old Gendron frequently cited was the “great replacement theory“The false idea that a group seeks to replace white Americans with non-white people through immigration, interracial marriage, and ultimately violence.” Such ideas reflect the beliefs of white supremacists, but also reveal deep insecurities about the social status of white men in America.
It is my belief a scholar of U.S. history, labor, race, and masculinity show that Roof, Gendron, and other recent mass shooters in racist attacks share similar insecurities with their historical predecessors.
Although finding solutions is no easy task, recognizing the connection between white fear and racist violence is a first step toward solving the problem.
Class, masculinity and violence
In modern society, young men face many hurdles on the path to traditional male success. Things are more difficult than ever for young people buy a house, secure a well-paying job or find a spouse. These difficulties lead to this high levels of anxiety among young people who struggle to achieve the security of their parents’ generation.
According to historians, throughout American history, white masculinity has often been defined “by the subjugation of racialized and gendered others.” Eduardo Obregon Pagan. But when they felt their superiority was threatened, white men took action against the perceived enemies who they felt were preventing them from enjoying the benefits of their privilege as white men.
The New York Draft Riots of 1863
During the Civil War, it was northern states like New York introduced a draft lottery by white men of fighting age. At that time, black men were exempt from military service because they were not considered U.S. citizens.
The draft infuriated New York’s white working-class population, in part because rich white men could hire a deputy or pay $0.00 to secure an exemption from the draft. This sum was roughly equivalent to the average annual salary of an American worker.
In response, Thousands of white workers rioted Between July 13 and 16, over 100 people died. They focused their attacks on African Americans, whom they beat, tortured and killed. Most egregious of all, rioters burned the building Colored orphanagewhich sheltered over 200 black children.
In a special representation of gender-specific symbolism a 16-year-old white youth dragged a black corpse through the street by its genitals.
The rioters’ anger at their inferior social class largely fueled their attacks on black men, who were an easier target than the root cause of draft disparities—elite white men and government agents.
The Chicago race riot of 1919
During the turn of the 20th century the Great Migration Many southern black people moved from the rural South to northern cities like Chicago. As waves of blacks moved into the city, white Chicagoans started on the south side of the city Bombing raids against black-owned homes to keep them out of white neighborhoods.
In July 1919 a black teenager accidentally drifted into the so-called white part of Lake Michigan. Angry white people threw stones at him and he eventually drowned. The incident sparked the infamous Race riots in Chicagoin which 38 people died, most of whom were black.
The main perpetrators of the riot violence were organized white youth gangs, operating under the pseudonym “sports clubs“, a phenomenon that takes center stage my own research. While these clubs participated in athletic competitions, they were in reality violent gangs that targeted black men.
These gangs roamed the streets in cars and attacked African Americans, burned down Black homes and businesses, and kept the fire of racial violence burning for days. They blamed black men for invading their communities.
Many of the youth gang members were Sons of Chicago packing house workers and did not want to endure the low wage work of their parents. Unable to secure social and financial success through legitimate means, these youth turned to crime and violence to make money build a sense of male identity.
Instead of traditional notions of masculinity centered on the family, they internalized what historians call “rough masculinity“, which emphasized combat and physical strength.
The Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles, 1943
During World War II, the U.S. government was many foods and materials rationed for the war effort. One such item was fabric, which forced clothing designers to make clothes with less material.
Most Americans welcomed wartime rations and viewed sacrifice as their patriotic duty. But in West Coast communities, young Mexican-American men paraded flamboyant costumes.Zoot suits.” Zoot suits were brightly colored and eye-catching, but more importantly, they required a large amount of fabric.
White Americans viewed the zoot suits as a mockery of the war effort. On June 3, 1943 a series of riots broke out in Los Angeles when white soldiers attacked young Mexican Americans in zoot suits.
To demonstrate their anger at the clothing, soldiers stripped many victims of their suits and burned them. Over the course of three days, over 150 Latino men were injured, but police did not arrest a single white soldier.
In many ways, the Zoot Suiters challenged the soldiers’ masculinity. On the one hand, white men felt insulted by the audacity of Mexican Americans to mock their male sacrifice of going to war. On the other hand, by attacking the zootsuits and ripping off their clothing, the soldiers appeared effective rejected their claim to masculinity.
There are many parallels between the racist violence of the past and the mass shootings of today. Understanding fears of class and masculinity can potentially go a long way toward addressing such concerns among a new generation of young white men.
It was written by: Colin Kohlhaas, Binghamton University, State University of New York.
Colin Kohlhaas does not work for, advise, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic employment.