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.
An aura of victimhood also extends to white millennials (ages 18-29). Almost 60 percent of young whites believe that “reverse discrimination” has become a major problem. As Adam Mansbach, the author of Angry Black White Boy, argues, the saturation of American popular culture with images of wealthy, sexy and cool black people like Jay Z and Beyoncé has left many white youths feeling inadequate and shut out of the American dream. White-student unions on college campuses like Towson University and Georgia State University exemplify the backlash against the tanning of success.
In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray—of The Bell Curve fame—blames liberals for what he sees as the pathologies of white America. Likewise, Dunn, writing to his grandmother, reached a similar conclusion, that “the courts are biased toward blacks” and his prosecution was the result of “a bunch of liberal bulls—t” and “white guilt.”
This, despite the fact that social science research clearly documents racial bias against blacks at every stage of the criminal-justice process, including police stops, arrests, bail, legal representation, jury selection, trial prosecution, sentencing, incarceration and parole.
More likely, the recent shootings of unarmed black people are related to a hateful strain of minority-white politics stoked by the Tea Party and right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan, who has written despairingly of the "demographic winter of white America" and once described President Barack Obama as a "drug dealer of welfare." This kind of race-baiting exploits the legitimate concerns held by white people, and other Americans, who are becoming the casualties of widening inequality and the crippling costs of college education and health care.
The jury in the Dunn case failed to convict him on the first-degree-murder charge for Jordan’s death, which signals our society’s deep ambivalence about both the value of black life and about holding white men accountable for their murderous rage. Unless we deal with the underlying crisis in white masculinity, we should expect similar tragedies in the future.
Travis L. Gosa, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, where his research focuses on racial inequality and African-American youths. He has written for Ebony, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Fox News and a number of academic journals.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included a quote from Pat Buchanan that was inaccurate.
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