The Sociology of White Male Shooters

Symptoms of a Society Sick With Patriarchy and White Supremacy

A memorial for those killed by Elliot Rodger during a mass shooting in Isla Vista, California, next to the University of Santa Barbara campus. Rodger stated in a manifesto that the mass shooting was motivated by retribution for rejection from women, signaling the crisis of masculinity and violence.
A memorial for those killed and injured in Isla Vista, California, by Elliot Rodger on May 23, 2014. Robyn Beck

“Sick,” “twisted,” “disturbed,” “psychotic,” “mentally ill,” “psychopath,” “acted alone.” These words are familiar to anyone who pays attention to news accounts of mass shootings carried out by white males over the last three decades. Trouble is, none of these guys—Eliot Rodger, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Anders Breivik in Norway, among others—really acted alone. While news accounts typically frame mass shootings by white males as the work of deranged individuals, the actions of these men and boys are expressive of widely held patriarchal and white supremacist beliefs. They are the manifestation of a sick society.

The shooters who left digital trails have made it clear that their actions were prompted by their perceived loss of power and status in society. They felt slighted by women who do not obey them and their desires, by people of color and queer folks who have fought for, earned, and defended their civil rights, and by a society that doesn’t afford them the respect and place they believe they deserve by accident of their race and gender. They are the product of a changed and ever-changing social context in which historic forms of power and domination are being slowly but loudly destabilized, and of a society that socializes them to believe that this is wrong, and that they deserve to be in positions of power.

Demographic Shifts in the U.S. and Anomie Among White Men​

Writing in 1897, sociologist Émile Durkheim popularized a theoretical concept that can be usefully applied to understanding how this perceived problem of individuals is actually a social problem. Anomie, Durkheim explained, is a condition that results when the values and expectations of an individual do not match those that predominate in society. When an individual experiences anomie, they feel disconnected from their society; they feel destabilized. Anomie, per Durkheim, is a state of social derangement.

Applying the theory of anomie to the phenomenon of white male shooters throws into relief the conditions of social derangement experienced by boys and men who take such action. White males, especially those with economic privilege relative to others, have historically lived at the top of the power hierarchy in the United States. They hold power in terms of their gender, their race, sometimes their class, and often, their sexuality. But, in today’s social context in which patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, and economic power have been destabilized by various social movements, legislation, and paradigm shifts in popular consciousness, their power over others is waning. With it, so too is their historically unjustly inflated social status.

The Violent Death Grip of Patriarchy and White Supremacy

This is not to say that patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, and economic control by white men are things of the past. These forms of domination live today in a wide variety of attitudes, values, beliefs, and practices. The actions of white male shooters make it fatally clear that the ideologies that undergird these forms of oppression are not only alive, but thriving today. They are expressed in their most overt and terrifying forms in the Youtube videos, chat logs, conversations, and manifestos of Anders Breivik, Elliot Rodger, and Jared Loughner, among others. They were expressed with violence and hatred in a rash of hate crimes against women, people of color, LGBT people, and immigrants following the 2016 presidential election.

In this social context of anomie, shooting others is a desperate attempt to reclaim norms lost. It is an assertion of power that has been destabilized by the changing nature of society, its norms, and its values. Yet, the actions of white male shooters are couched within the larger social problem of a troubled masculinity that transcends race. Viewed through a wider lens, the connections between shootings perpetrated by white males and other forms of violent masculine expression, like street harassment, gendered and sexualized violence, hate crimes, gang violence, and white separatist and nationalist movements become clear.

Society Needs Masculinity Rooted in Respect and Care for Others

A social problem like this requires a social solution. Background checks and reforms to gun laws might reduce gun violence, but they will not stop other forms of violence that stem from a social sickness. Alleviating the social sickness of racism, and the gendered and heterosexist norms of patriarchy is work that must be done collectively by all of us. We, as a society, must reconfigure what masculinity means, and cast off the dangerous values and expectations that we socialize boys to hold and express in their behavior. Curing this social sickness requires a new masculinity detached from notions of superiority, dominance, control, and compliance of others. It requires what the writers at Rad Dad advocate for in their call for a Feminist Fathers’ Day: a masculinity premised on respect and care for others.