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A Culture of Violent White Guys

In a country where the violence of certain groups is tolerated, even encouraged, it’s inevitable that tragedies will follow.

Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

For nearly three weeks, the people of Austin and San Antonio were terrorized by news of a bomber among them. A guy who killed two people, wounded four more, and left two cities on edge. His first victim, Anthony Stephan House, a prominent member of Austin’s African-American community, was initially treated as a suspect in his own bombing death. But after police identified Mark Anthony Conditt, who is white, as the bomber who killed House, Austin’s police chief sounded a sympathetic note: “This is a very troubled young man who was talking about challenges in his life that led him to the point in his life that led him to take the actions that he took.”

We have seen this juxtaposition before: a suspicion of black victims, coupled with compassion for violent white perpetrators. Conditt may have killed innocent people, but he is still redeemable in some way, or at least understandable.

It has since emerged that Conditt was homeschooled in a conservative Christian environment. One of Conditt’s childhood friends, who “ran in the same conservative survivalist circles as Conditt in high school,” said they were both involved in a group called Righteous Invasion of Truth (RIOT), which taught kids how to use guns, identify dangerous chemicals, and bond over weapons. Another childhood friend described the experience of a lot of his homeschooled friends as one of “loneliness. ... It’s just very difficult for a lot of kids to find a way to fit in once they are out in the real world. I have a feeling that is what happened with Mark. I don’t remember him ever being sure of what he wanted to do.”

None of this background necessarily provides a motive for Conditt’s bombings. But between his background and his final, horrifying actions, Conditt comes across as a white Christian man who addressed his problems with violence, in a country that allows and even encourages men like him to resort to violence. In America white guys receive lots of signals—from the news, from their communities, from elected leaders—that violence might be an acceptable answer to their troubles. People of other colors and non-Christian faiths don’t.

Over the weekend, white armed protesters faced down gun control advocates at March For Our Lives events around the country, serving as a visual threat to people who oppose gun violence. One guy in Arizona with an AR-15 over his shoulder said, “If they attack, I will attack back.”

Open carry only works out for white people. The last prominent African-American group to support open carry, the Black Panthers, inspired a 1967 California gun control law after politicians were horrified to see them exercising their legal right to open carry on the steps of the California statehouse. More recently, Philando Castile was killed for exercising his legal right to carry guns. And just last week, Stephon Clark was shot 20 times and killed for the only-for-black-people offense of open carrying a wallet.

If you’re a white guy, you can look at the white open carriers and think they look tough. Dangerous. They can make you less afraid to buy a gun, carry it around, and possibly use it. After all, there’s a good chance nothing will happen to you.

American militias are another group of increasingly visible, violent, usually white guys. Militias are private citizens who train with guns to defend their state or country in times of emergency, though they have pretty wide-ranging ideas of what emergencies are. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, armed militias that “engage in paramilitary training” rose roughly 65 percent in 2017, from 165 to 273 chapters. The Multnomah County Republican Party, aka the Republicans of the county that includes the city of Portland, Oregon, voted last June to use members of the paramilitary groups the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters as private security for their events.

The Oathkeepers also provided support for the 2014 Bundy standoff, where Cliven Bundy and other armed militants successfully protested Bundy’s claimed right to illegally let his cattle graze on federal land. Bundy was turned into a virtual folk hero on Fox News and other conservative outlets. And in 2016, Ammon Bundy, Cliven Bundy’s son, formed a militia called the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom that staged a 41-day armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation. While some of their fellow militants pled guilty to various federal crimes, and a few were convicted, Ammon and his brother Ryan, the two most high-profile defendants, were acquitted of the federal charges against them, proving that sometimes armed white guys can take over federal land for almost seven weeks, resist the authorities, and walk away.

Since Eric Garner was killed by the state for selling loose cigarettes, Sean Bell for leaving a bachelor party, and Mike Brown for walking down the street, it’s hard to imagine nonwhite people getting away with staging a weeks-long armed standoff with the feds.

White violence is even tacitly permitted at much, much sillier levels. Last week Joe Biden and Donald Trump each claimed they could beat the other up. Their competing offers to fight were largely greeted with either enthusiasm or very mild mockery. They were both trying to pump up that section of American culture that thinks fistfights are cool, making it clear that they don’t see themselves as the kind of people who get arrested for assault or battery. Our last president, a black guy called Barack Obama, provoked mass hysteria for putting his feet on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. Imagine the years-long civil war we’d be in if he’d threatened to take out, say, Paul Ryan with his fists.

It may seem weird to tie this idea of encouraged violence to a culture called “white guys,” because white guys don’t necessarily identify as white guys—they often see themselves as just guys. But culture is both a set of positive affirmations about the value of one’s self and one’s group affiliations and a set of negative rules about what people shouldn’t do if they want to continue belonging to society. Blackness, as an example, is defined as much by someone’s skin color or the history of black contributions to the world as by the things that black people are culturally discouraged from doing, like openly carrying guns. If culture is, in part, what you can get away with, then violence is a part of white culture.

So it’s sadly not surprising that we occasionally end up with guys like Conditt, or Timothy McVeigh, or the Unabomber, who step beyond the norms governing violence in this country. Especially in an era where the president has indicated that domestic terrorism, which is largely committed by white guys, isn’t an enforcement priority. We have to teach our white guys who feel angry or sad that violence isn’t the answer.