Like our first president — not our current one — I cannot tell a lie: We must chop down the poisonous tree of white supremacist masculinity.
I teared up when I heard about the alt-right's violence unleashed in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. Some of my tears, though, were in frustration. After all the years colleagues and I have been writing and speaking about the gender of the killers — from Columbine to Orlando — how is it possible that coverage of murder suspect James Fields Jr. failed to point out the obvious: He was a disaffected, alienated 20-year-old male. Sound familiar? Recognize the profile?
If we were to speak to the 20- and 30-something men such as Fields who chanted the Nazi "Blood and Soil" slogan while marching with lighted torches across the University of Virginia campus to make America hate again, we'd find many shared a similar profile. It is outrageous that our so-called president stands with them.
Of course we have to vigorously confront — in the strongest words and deeds — the vile attacks on African-Americans and other people of color, Muslims, Jews, the LGBTQ community, immigrants—anyone—by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And we have to call out our leaders if they hesitate even for a moment before condemning toxic assaults on a free, inclusive society.
Hear me, please. While there are white female supremacists, the vast majority are white males. We ignore that fact at our peril.
In our long-term strategy to address domestic, terrorism, we must prioritize raising emotionally literate boys, dismantling bullying masculinity and demanding the CDC conduct a study of the mental health of boys and young men. Disconnected, rudderless young males are vulnerable prey for older, angry white men who promote ideologies of hate. We must prevent their recruitment, or we will continue to experience violence like what happened in Charlottesville. Or worse.
The morning after the 2016 presidential election, the Ku Klux Klan-inspired alt-right's ragtag army had found its general; it has been emboldened ever since. Don't believe me? Check the uptick nationally in hate crimes in the past six months.
The warning signs about James Fields were in plain sight long before he plowed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd, killing activist and paralegal Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. His family and acquaintances along with his Internet posts suggest he had mostly "gone unnoticed by the authorities and researchers, even as he trafficked in radical views and unnerving behavior long before the outbreak of violence," wrote Alan Blinder in The New York Times. In his teenage years some who knew him said "his demeanor and opinions had troubled them for years."
Did his family reach out to his doctor or school guidance counselor? Engage a therapist? Was anyone paying attention when, as a young man in Kentucky, he touted Nazi ideology? "On many occasions ... he would scream obscenities, whether it be about Hitler or racial slurs," a former middle school classmate told The Times. He was "exceptionally odd and an outcast to be sure."
Who among us doesn't remember a boy in middle school and high school who was "exceptionally odd" and an "outcast?" Such young men need to be helped, not hounded; supported, not shunned. I'm not suggesting hate-spewing bad actors aren't totally responsible for their actions; they are. Rather, let's prevent them from becoming hate-mongers in the first place.
In white America's ongoing work to unflinchingly take responsibility for our country's shameful slaveholding origins, we must also examine how we socialize boys to become men. The kissin' cousin of a white supremacist history is our patriarchal legacy.
Since symbols of the Confederacy have begun to be removed — from lowering flags in Southern state capitals to toppling Civil War statues — we cannot forget the role toxic masculinity plays in the conversation about confronting white nationalism.
The George Washington cherry tree story reminds us, "I cannot tell a lie." So let's not. Let's acknowledge that we must chop down the tree of violent, hate-filled white masculinity to get at the root of our malaise. Then, together we can plant seedlings for a new forest of American manhood deeply rooted in accountability, compassion and self-reflection.
We cannot afford to wait another moment.
Rob Okun is editor of Voice Male magazine and former executive director of one of the earliest men's centers in North America. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.