Why Are White Men Like Michael Dunn So Angry?

A crisis in white masculinity is killing black teenagers and, history says, the violence is likely to continue.

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Michael Dunn

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Why are so many white men like Michael Dunn angry?

Dunn, the man found guilty Saturday on three counts of attempted second-degree murder for shooting into a car full of black teenagers at a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station after an argument over loud rap music—but not convicted of the murder of Jordan Davis, the 17-year-old slain in the incident—provides some answers. Like Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, Dunn’s case represents the rage felt by many angry white men in America.

During his cross-examination on the stand, Dunn admitted to feeling “disrespected by a mouthy teenager” who ignored his request to turn down the “rap crap” blasting from a red SUV occupied by Jordan and his friends. In Dunn’s version of events, Jordan taunted him with racial and gender slurs like “cracker” and “bitch.”

Dunn was pushed over the edge by insults and window-rattling music, and what allegedly followed eerily mirrored the 1993 film Falling Down, in which a white-collar worker-turned-vigilante snaps under the pressure of white, middle-class life and strikes back against Latino gangbangers.

Dunn yelled, “You’re not going to talk to me that way,” according to witness testimony. He grabbed his gun from the glove compartment and fired nine rounds into the side of the teenagers’ vehicle, killing Jordan. According to Dunn, he fled the scene and spent a sleepless night at a hotel, expecting “more gangsters” to retaliate against him and his fiancee.

For angry white men like Dunn, Jordan Davis’ “gangsta rap” music and Trayvon Martin’s “hoodie” symbolize a larger culture war in which putatively wholesome American culture is under siege by blackness. “Stand your ground” laws, Dunn believes, give Americans the right to defend themselves against “the denigration of women” and “the violence and lifestyle that the ‘gangsta rap’ music and the ‘thug life’ ” adopted by “an entire generation” of “young black men.”

Awaiting trial, Dunn wrote several letters to his family and friends complaining about how “jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs.” In a letter to his daughter, he offered the following solution to the problem of  black thuggery: “This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these f--king idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

Threatened by growing black economic and political power in the early 20th century, white men calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan used this same portrayal of black men as violent, sexual predators to justify racial terrorism. It’s estimated that from 1880 to 1930, more than 2,400 African Americans were lynched, often for insulting white men or forgetting “their place.” For contemporary angry white men, standing up to “gangsta rap” and “thugs” is akin to night-riding on black men, as portrayed in D.W. Griffith’s classic 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.

Although economic downturns disproportionately affect black unemployment and home ownership, working-class and college-educated whites are now feeling the sting of restricted opportunity. In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes how these men often blame the trifecta of feminism, affirmative action and immigration for their woes.

The relative devaluing of white privilege has been interpreted as racial oppression of whites and “reverse discrimination.” Opinion polls (pdf) suggest that half of all white Americans now see themselves as the targets of racism, and that number pushes past 60 percent among self-identified Republicans and among those who watch Fox News.