President Trump is notorious for connecting acts of violence to race and faith, often blaming Muslims and people of color whenever tragedy plays out across the world. That default response, however, tripped up both the president and other elected officials this week, after a 64-year-old white male U.S. citizen allegedly opened fire on a crowded concert in Las Vegas, Nevada late Sunday evening, killing at least 59 people injuring more than 500.
The incident horrified much of the country and left the people of Las Vegas grieving and searching for answers. Much of the coverage following the tragedy centered on the identity of the alleged attacker, Stephen Paddock, with many commentators remarking on his supposedly unique profile: a quiet, lone white man whose family and friends were shocked by his actions. Paddock, they claimed, simply didn’t fit the profile of an alleged mass murderer.
In reality, what happened in Las Vegas is actually the norm in the United States — white men are disproportionately responsible for mass shootings and wide-scale acts of violence.
According to Mother Jones, approximately 54 percent of mass-shootings since 1982 have been carried out by white men. (Men more generally are responsible for virtually all mass shootings, as well as 90 percent of murders.) While Paddock’s age is unusual — other shooters are on average several decades younger — his race and other factors fit the profile to a T.
Little is currently known about Paddock’s motive, but other white male mass shooters have shared various underlying characteristics, one of which, Newsweek notes, is a sense of entitlement — many have lost jobs, failed to complete school, faced rejection by partners, or seen other elements of their lives spiral out of control. That resulting feeling of failure (along with the assumption that such failure is undeserved and the fault of others) has been reported as a motivating factor in brutal rampages like the massacre that played out in Las Vegas.
Among many mass killers, the triple privileges of white heterosexual masculinity which make subsequent life course losses more unexpected and thus more painfully shameful ultimately buckle under the failures of downward mobility and result in a final cumulative act of violence to stave off subordinated masculinity.
Political rhetoric and public perceptions, however, do not accurately reflect this reality. If anything, more attention has been paid to all the wrong parties: Trump’s travel ban, for instance, which initially targeted refugees and seven Muslim-majority countries, now centers on an even larger, extended group of nations — most of which are still majority-Muslim.
Safety has been key among the justifications for the policy. “We will never forget the lessons of 9/11,” Trump said in January, speaking about the ban. “This is not about religion. This is about terror and keeping our country safe.”
The president did not cite any specific statistics to support his claim.
Over the past three years, the president has repeatedly linked Islam and violence, oftentimes without any confirmation. In December, Trump blamed “Islamic terrorists” for attacks in Germany and Turkey before information became widely known; months later, in September, a London subway bombing prompted the president to push his travel ban after labeling the individual responsible a “loser terrorist.”
“Another attack in London by a loser terrorist. These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!” Trump tweeted. “The travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher and more specific-but stupidly, that would not be politically correct!”
The travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher and more specific-but stupidly, that would not be politically correct!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2017
That pattern offered a study in contrasts on Monday, when Trump extended his condolences to the Las Vegas shooting victims. “My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting,” he tweeted. “God bless you!”
The president did not speculate about the alleged shooter’s race or religious motivations.
My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting. God bless you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2017
Trump isn’t alone is his willingness to ignore the white male suspect pattern. According to a study published in March, media outlets traditionally under-cover attacks by non-Muslims. When Muslims are responsible for violence, however, coverage increases by 449 percent.
“When attacks are perpetrated by a Muslim, they receive drastically more coverage,” Erin Kearns, the lead author of the study, said in June. Kearns told ThinkProgress that the discrepancy is actually warping how U.S. audiences perceive those who commit mass-atrocities.
“Across every model that we looked at, we’re still finding that Muslim perpetrators have at least 200 percent increase in coverage,” she said at the time.
Language is also key in how coverage unfolds. While Muslim perpetrators of color are virtually always labeled “terrorists,” white male attackers are typically referred to as “lone wolves” — or, men experiencing isolated cases of rage unrelated to their wider identities. That means that many particularly violent instances — including Dylann Roof’s June 2015 murder of nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina; Wade Michael Page’s August 2012 slaughter of six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Paddock’s deadly rampage in Las Vegas — have largely been viewed as stand-alone tragedies rather than indicative of a larger problem.
“These are not terrorists. You know what a terrorist is,” humorist Alexandra Petri wrote in a satirical piece following the Las Vegas massacre. “A Terrorist must be Something Else, or the people who apply labels to such things would have to look in the mirror every day and see a potential terrorist. They would have to admit that what they are afraid of is not the same as terrorism. They would have to admit that the horrible violence that happened in Las Vegas is not an aberration. And then — No. The shooter was alone. He was a fluke. He was a wolf.”
Humor aside, Petri’s column highlights the bigger issue: between 2011 and 2015, 89 attacks were committed by individuals in the United States, according to Kearns’ study. Only 12.4 percent of those attacks were carried out by Muslims.
By contrast, white men — regardless of faith — have carried out more than half of all mass shootings in the United States over the past few decades. And while masculinity is an overwhelming factor in incidents of violence more generally, whiteness is one that has gone particularly unacknowledged.
“There’s a feeling of entitlement that white men have that black men don’t,” Northeastern University professor James Alan Fox told the Washington Post in 2012. “They often complain that their job was taken by blacks or Mexicans or Jews. They feel that a well-paid job is their birthright. It’s a blow to their psyche when they lose that.”
In addition to being a largely white male phenomenon, mass shootings are also a largely American one. According to FiveThirtyEight, between 1966 and 2012, there have been 90 mass shootings in the United States — more than the next four countries combined.
Mass violence is always a tragedy, regardless of perpetrator. But without acknowledging the real root of the problem and the underlying patterns that so often go ignored, it’s more than likely those devastating trends will continue unabated.