Are white men particularly prone to carrying out the all-too-familiar mass killings of which last week's Aurora shooting is just the latest iteration? Is there something about the white, male, middle-class experience that makes it easier for troubled young men to turn schools and movie theaters into killing fields? In a word, yes.
Not every mass murder in recent years has been committed by a middle-class white guy. But as Jamie Utt pointed out in the hours after the Colorado theater massacre, in those rare instances where a man of color is responsible for a shooting spree (as in the 2007 Virginia Tech killings or the 2009 Fort Hood rampage), the popular reaction is to search for connections between the race or religion of the murderer and his act. After Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people in Blacksburg, media attention focused on the likelihood that a Korean culture unwilling to acknowledge mental illness helped drive the young man to commit the worst mass murder in U.S. history. After Maj. Nidal Hasan carried out the Fort Hood shootings, his Muslim faith became all the public needed to know about his motive.
It seems likely that Islamic extremism did lead Hasan to kill; it's possible that Cho's cultural background did mean that his psychological problems were particularly likely to be ignored. Ethnicity, faith, and social class are key parts of the modern human identity; they are always part of the explanation for why we think the way we think and act the way we act. The difference, as Chauncey DeVega made clear on Saturday, is that when white men commit mass murder we don't hear how their skin color, their maleness, or their social class were contributing factors to their acts. As Peggy McIntosh famously wrote in her White Privilege Checklist, we see whites as individuals whose moral state reflects their individual will. In other words, white men kill simply because they are "sick" or "evil." When men of color murder, it is because they are both those things and because of factors uniquely attributable to their race.
Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces "belong" to you. If you are â like James Holmes last week, or Charles Whitman, who killed 16 people on the University of Texas, Austin campus in 1966 â an American-born, college-educated white man from a prosperous family, you don't have a sense that any place worth being is off-limits to the likes of you. White men from upper middle-class backgrounds expect to be both welcomed and heard wherever they go. When that sense of entitlement gets frustrated, as it can for a host of complex psychological reasons, it is those same hyper-privileged men who are the most likely to react with violent, rage-filled indignation. For white male murderers from "nice" families, the fact that they chose public spaces like schools, university campuses, or movie theaters as their targets suggests that they saw these places as legitimately theirs.
The vast majority of white men from comfortable backgrounds don't commit mass murder, of course. Our entitlement doesn't manifest in the sense that public spaces are ours to terrorize, but it does show up in the confidence with which we move in those spaces. The certainty of belonging is at the core of our privilege.