Yesterday, during a cable news discussion of gun violence and the Newtown school shooting, I dared mention a taboo truism. During a conversation on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, I said that because most of the mass shootings in America come at the hands of white men, there would likely be political opposition to initiatives that propose to use those facts to profile the demographic group to which these killers belong…any honest observer should be able to admit that if the gunmen in these mass shootings mostly had, say, Muslim names or were mostly, say, African American men, the country right now wouldn’t be confused about the causes of the violence, and wouldn’t be asking broad questions. There would probably be few queries or calls for reflection, and mostly definitive declarations blaming the bloodshed squarely on Islamic fundamentalism or black nationalism, respectively.
First off, “Islamic fundamentalism” and “black nationalism” are ideologies and not races. “White people,” contrarily, form a demographic group, the only unifying feature of which is skin color. One may monitor an ideology because of the tenets that it holds and the aims to which its adherents subscribe; one doesn’t monitor a group because of its members’ skin color. Apples and oranges.
Still, Sirota claims that:
because the the perpetrators in question in these shootings are white men and not ethnic or religious minorities, nobody is talking about demographic profiling them as a group.
What Sirota calls a “group” is not in fact a “group,” but 223,553,265 people who vary wildly in lifestyle, income, politics, religiosity, and so forth. It is undeniable that the “perpetrators in question” are numerically mostly white men, but that is largely because the United States has an awful lot of white men, and because white people in toto make up almost three-quarters of the population.
Proportionately, however, Sirota’s claim certainly is deniable, because it isn’t true. Sirota might have known this had he read his own website — Salon — whose Andrew O’Hehir observed on Saturday that,
the stereotype that these kinds of shooters are invariably white men is less true than it used to be. In the last decade or so, almost every possible demographic has been represented: There have been two infamous campus shootings by Asian graduate students, one by a Native American teenager living on a Minnesota reservation, and a couple by African-Americans and Latinos. Overall, 43 of the 61 shooters in mass killings since 1982 have been white, which is only a little higher than the proportion of whites in the general population.
Actually, it’s a little lower. 43 out of 61 is 70 percent. White people form 72.4 percent of the U.S. population, as per the last census.
This appears to hold for serial killers in general. As the FBI noted in a 2010 report on serial murder, “contrary to popular belief, serial killers span all racial groups. There are white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian serial killers. The racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population.” As it happens, it turns out that if there is any disproportionate racial representation among serial killers, it is, as the historian Philip Jenkins has recorded, that white people are marginally underrepresented and that African-Americans are slightly over-represented. In his book Race and Crime, Anthony Walsh joins Jenkins in taking apart the “myth” that whites are over-represented, noting that “white (Anglo) males are actually slightly underrepresented in the serial killer ranks in terms of their proportion to the general male population.”
As Andrew O’Hehir concluded, the problem with mass shootings and mass murder — and crime in general — is men. Hehir quotes Mother Jones’s research that “60 of the 61 mass shooters in America over the last three decades have been men or boys.” For men, this is a hard and sad truth; for David Sirota’s attempt to turn the events of last Friday into a conversation about race, it is fatal.