Tim Wise Didn't Go Far Enough
Tim Wise won national, mainstream media attention with his provocative piece, "School Shootings and White Denial," arguing that the Columbine and Santee massacres reveal a deeper drug and violence pathology among white suburban youth, problems whites typically associate with urban black and Latino youth. Wise is correct that white suburban culture is indeed violent and drug-plagued, but youth are not the manifestation of those problems. By choosing very rare school shootings and supposed white-youth hard-drug use to illustrate his thesis, Wise allows adults to get away with another "your kids are worse than our kids" diversion.
I offer a grimmer theory as to why Wise's editorial received such enthusiastic accolades across color lines: he kept the discussion safe. Although clearly not his intent, the practical result of his editorial was continuation of the 1990s trend of making youth behavior the lingua franca for discussing social ills while grownups take the easy way out.
What is Wise's evidence to white parents that "dysfunction is all around you"? The same dubious points he'd rightly deplore if applied to black or brown youth. First, mass, random school shootings are white-boy phenomena. True -- among 9 million white boys in 20,000 secondary schools in the last five years, 14 students in 12 schools conducted highly publicized shootings. While a poorer youth (or adult) is a dozen times more likely to commit individual murder than a middle/upper-class youth (or adult), rampages by more affluent males are more likely to involve random, mass killing. But the fact is that killers, white or of color, are extremely rare and do not prove the typical black or Latino kid is a superpredator any more than they prove the typical white kid is a latent school gunboy.
Second, Wise points out that school surveys show white students use drugs more than black students (but, he doesn't point out, less than Native Americans and Hispanics). True; the rarity of black teenage drug abuse contradicts the stereotype perpetrated by the media, the drug war, and many black leaders. However, the same federal surveys show cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and other hard drugs are used by only tiny fractions of white youth even once in the past year, and drug deaths and hospitalizations among youth of all colors are vanishingly low and much rarer today than 20 or 30 years ago.
Further, it matters little which race reports being more likely to bring "weapons" to school when schools remain far safer from homicide and weapons violence than other major American institutions such as families, workplaces, and streets. In order to sustain the claim that youth are in mass wastage, crucial facts (such as the fact that white and black youth drug abuse and murder rates are at 30-year lows, as are most other supposed youth dysfunctions) have to be suppressed.
The "shocking whiteness" of the "shoot-em-ups" Wise reifies does not center on the fact that they're perpetrated by "boys;" Americans only find it easier to talk about violence when youths are the culprits. As mass shootings go, boys are very unlikely perpetrators. The true gun-killers are mostly middle-aged men -- white baby boomers, in fact, the group smugly wringing its hands over school shootings.
Dozens of gun-wielding, mostly white 30-60-age males recently have gone berserk in homes, offices, churches, grocery stores, community centers, industrial workplaces, even the national and California capitols. Office massacres claimed 12 in Atlanta, three in Alabama, seven in Honolulu, four in Seattle, eight in Tampa, three in Santa Cruz. Enraged middle-agers gunned down four teens and three adults in a Fort Worth church, six more in a Mormon library, and three teens and a Bible teacher in Ohio. Failed romances prompted midlife men to massacre six in Michigan, four in Baltimore, four in Memphis, six in Sacramento, and five toddlers at a California preschool. At least 25 are believed slain by a Texas serial killer; a Seattle national guard pilot admitted murdering a dozen prostitutes, and senior-citizen rampages in Michigan and Arizona elderly housing left eight dead or wounded. Mass, middle-class male killings pass weekly without a hint of accusation that midlife killings reveal white pathology.
Nor, in the wake of school shootings, did anyone bother to check the high levels of violence, crime, and addiction by suburban adults in "pastoral" communities they stereotyped as immune to grief. The latest California Criminal Justice Profiles show that in 1999, police in white, suburban Santee logged 231 weapons-related domestic violence reports, along with arrests of 300 adults for felony property, drug, and violent crimes (including homicides) and 600 more adults for other offenses. Wise's castigation of the "white denial" and media myth of suburban enclavism is apt.
However, Wise's statement that whites should recognize that the "dangerous ones" are not "black, brown, and poor" youth but their own "dysfunctional" white kids simply shifts stigma from one scapegoated group to another. White teenagers are not as feared as black and brown youth, but they increasingly are stigmatized and subjected to harsher policing and punishment. Far from ignoring white-youth dysfunction, the press from ABC News to "People" to "Rolling Stone" repeatedly feature the younger suburban generation as lost to heroin and mayhem.
Defending the goodness of black youth (dramatically evident in its own right in plummeting rates of black teens' drug abuse, crime, and imprisonment in the 1990s against steep socioeconomic odds) does not require counter-demonizing white youth to achieve. Doing so upholds America's tradition of allowing the mainstream to praise itself while demeaning powerless groups by the worst of their number. Note that reporters, authorities, and Santee school officials excused the popular jocks, cheerleaders, and staff who bullied the shooter and blamed his outcast friends for not turning him in.
Adults of all colors and political stripes comfortably pretend that violence and drugs are "youth problems" even as morgues, hospital emergency rooms, and prisons fill with messed-up grownups.
So, let me refocus Wise's question more bluntly on mainstream pathology: adult America, especially my self-satisfied 30-60-age-mates, the "dysfunction" is not your (or someone else's) kids and their supposed violence, drugs, and "culture corrupted" values. The problem is middle American, middle-aged drug and alcohol abuse, violence, crime, and rotten values reflected in everything from rampant household battery and drunken driving to me-me politics and high-level scandal.
White middle agers -- appallingly affluent, blessed with vast remedial resources, and hardly targeted by police -- have no excuse for the huge, surging rates of addiction, violence, imprisonment, and general disarray they inflict on society, families, and their children. And we have no excuse for commodifying "kids" of any color as convenient scapegoats to deny mainstream failings.
Mike Males ,firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute and author of "Kids & Guns," (Common Courage Press, 2001) posted as a complete online book at: www.commoncouragepress.com/males_guns.html.