On April 3, In Binghamton, NY a Vietnamese immigrant, Jiverly Linh Phat Wong — (or Voong) — blocked the back exit of a civic community center where immigrants attended English-language classes and shot 13 people to death before killing himself. On April 4, Richard Poplawski shot and killed three Pittsburgh, PA police officers – and injured two others – during a standoff that lasted nearly four hours. Understanding race and gender is crucial here given that one of these is about anti-Asian discrimination, the other is about antisemitism and white supremacy, and both are about masculinity.
Rampage & Race: Reacting to Anti-Asian Discrimination
Understanding what happened in Binghamton requires understanding the way anti-Asian discrimination operates in the U.S. Many people don’t even realize that there is such a thing as anti-Asian discrimination, so perhaps it’s best to start with a recent example, such as the truly asinine remarks of Rep. Betty Brown (R-Texas). On Tuesday (April 7), Brown said that Asian Americans should consider changing their name to make it “easier for Americans to deal with.” Brown has resisted efforts to apologize for her remarks. This sort of comment might be offensive enough from an ordinary citizen, but coming from an elected official with legislative power to implement her racist ideas is alarming and indicative of the kind of discrimination that Asian Americans routinely face. This sort of discrimination takes a toll.
In the opening chapter of The Myth of the Model Minority, authors Chou and Feagin highlight the many costs of anti-Asian racism on mental health:
Few researchers have probed Asian American mental health data in any depth. One mid-2000s study of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrant youth examined acculturation to the core culture, but only briefly noted that some of these youth experienced substantial “cultural stress, such as being caught between two cultures, feeling alienated from both cultures, and having interpersonal conflicts with whites.”47 Another study examined only Korean male immigrants and found some negative impact on mental health from early years of adjustment and some mental “stagnation” a decade so after immigration. Yet the researchers offered little explanation for the findings. One recent study of U.S. teenagers found that among various racial groups Asian American youth had by far the highest incidence of teenage depression, yet the report on this research did not even assess the importance of this striking finding.48
In the modest statistical analysis that exists, Asian American statistics on suicide and alcoholism stand out. Elderly Chinese American women have a suicide rate ten times that of their elderly white counterparts. While Asian American students are only 17 percent of the Cornell University student body, they make up fully half of all completed suicides there.
Despite the high-profile cases of Asians and Asian-Americans involved in violent crimes, such as the Binghamton and Virginia Tech cases, the majority of Asian-Americans tend to hold in their rage over discrimination, part of what is responsible for the highest suicide rates of all racial groups in the U.S.
Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, writes at New American Media, that:
Whenever a minority commits a heinous crime, it seems to beckon us in the media to search beyond an individual motive for a cultural one.
Yet, there is a certain level of hypocrisy in this, as Lam points out, because there is very little analysis of American culture when these crimes make news.
If the Asian shame-based culture is still prominent, keeping its citizens in line and well behaved, it is the gun culture in America that is most conspicuous. It is there on TV and video games and the Internet and the silver screen, and it is the most accessible language for the tongue-tied. For them the gun –- be it in video games or at the practicing range — speaks volumes.
So, for instance, when a white man commits one of these rampage killings, there’s very little analysis of the dominant white culture in most of the mainstream news reports about the event. The incident in Pittsburgh is a case in point.
Rampage & Race: Acting on Antisemitism & White Supremacy
Several press reports have noted that Richard Poplawski, the shooter in the Pittsburgh case, held virulently antisemitic views and frequented conspiracy-theory websites such as Alex Jones’ Infowars. CNN refers to him as a white supremacist who believes that Jews control American media, financial institutions and government and that federal authorities plan to confiscate guns owned lawfully by American citizens, based on ADL reports about Poplawki’s postings at Don Black’s Stormfront.
Mainstream press accounts like the one from CNN tend to represent Poplawski as a “nutcase,” without offering any sort of analysis of how his views might be shared by other whites. David Weigel, of The Washington Independent, does make this connection between mainstream white culture and incidents like the Pittsburgh shooting. He writes that after spending the weekend attending the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky where all manner of Third Reich memorabilia was available for sale, that he is not surprised by Poplawski’s beliefs. Weigel also calls out conservative talk show host Glenn Beck for fanning the flames of conspiracy theorists with rants like this one.
Gender & Rampage: Enacting Violent Masculinity
Unfortunately, what almost no one in the mainstream press or the blogosphere has pointed out about the recent shootings is the connection to gender, and specifically, to a particulalry violent form of masculinity. Harvard sociologist Katherine Newman and colleagues in their 2004 book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, observe the following about the relationship of rampage shooters in their study to violent masculinity:
“The shooters appear to be working from widely available cultural scripts that glorify violent masculinity. …. The shooting solves two problems at once: it provides them the ‘exit’ they are seeking and it overturns the social hiearchy, establishing once and for all that they are…’gutsy and daring,’ not ‘weak and slow-witted.’ The problem is they didn’t just fail at popularity — they failed at the very specific task of ‘manhood,’ or at least they felt that way. The solutions to this failure are popularized in the media in violent song lyrics, movies, and video games. But the overall script of violent masculinity is omnipresent. ‘Men’ handle their own problems. They don’t talk; they act. They fight back. And above all, ‘men’ must never let others push them around.” (Newman, et al., 2004: 269).
While the Binghamton and Pittsburgh incidents did not take place within the context of schools, as did the incidents that Newman and colleagues studied, there are some real similarities between them with regard to violent masculinity. The stance that Wong adopted for his pose with the guns he later used for murder and suicide evokes the cool pose of violent masculinity that is glorified in any number of mainstream American movies, music and television. Poplawski’s former girlfriend filed for a domestic abuse protection order against him because he dragged her by the hair across the floor and threatened to kill her. Both Wong and Poplawski seem to have internalized, and eventually acted on, a violent version of masculinity in which they “handled” their problems in a way that reaffirmed their manhood – at least in their own minds. And, given the ways that becoming a “real man” in U.S. society is tied to the economic success and the role of “breadwinner” for the family, the continued economic decline suggests even more of these kinds of violent rampages by men who are unable to earn a living.
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Shooting rampages like the ones in Binghamton and Pittsburgh are becoming more common here in the U.S. As Nickie Wild writing at Sociology Lens explains, this may be part of a “super anomie,” in which the gap between what one wants to achieve and what seems possible widens (or seems insurmountable) and then violence increases. Others have pointed to the shooting incidents as indications that U.S. gun laws need re-thinking, and this is truly the case. Yet, to really understand what’s behind these sorts of rampage shootings, we must have a more complex understanding of the ways race and gender are intricately woven into the fabric of these violent incidents.