The “check engine” light flashed on as I pulled into the Port City Java parking lot on Market. I hate that little light. It’s usually nothing important—well, except for that one time when I let it go for months and fried my engine.
I finished listening to a news story about the futility of sending “thoughts and prayers” to more families victimized by our collective inability to treat gun violence as the disease it is. Before I opened the car door, I heard the beginning of another story on a study authored by East Carolina University Professor Emeritus Chris Mansfield. The study showed rising rates of premature deaths of middle-aged whites in North Carolina.
I ran into an acquaintance at the coffee shop and mentioned my surprise. I told him, “Mansfield said, ‘A large portion of the increase in mortality is attributed to ‘deaths of despair’—suicide, liver disease, drug overdose, and behaviors that lead to these deaths.” The findings are consistent with a 2015 study in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” by Ann Case and Angus Deaton, which shows rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans, even relative to non-whites in the same age and economic strata. Both studies buck the worldwide trend of increased life expectancy for all ethnicities in this age group in developed countries that honor their social contract.
“That’s a shame,” my coffee-shop friend said. “Colleges are so liberal. Even if the so-called research is true, it just shows the system isn’t broken. And it’s colorblind. This is America. Black, white, man or woman—everybody’s got the freedom to fail,” he said.
He added with confidence, “We’re both middle-aged white guys. We’re not dying of despair, right?
“Yeah, we’re ‘winning,’” I said pensively. “But that kid in Florida—that kind a mass shooting could be another expression of white despair, white male despair in particular. Unable to adjust to a more level playing field, and with movies like ‘Black Panther,’ white males who feel like they’re ‘losing’ cast a wide blame net and make themselves great again by hurting others.”
“C’mon! The kid was mentally ill!” he said. “They all are. And he could easily have been black.”
“But he wasn’t,” I said. “Nearly none of the mass shooters are black or women. Why not?”
“Do the math! Way more white men in America,” he said. “Of course, there’s way more white men shooters. And women don’t count.”
I raised my eyebrow.
“Not like that,” he clarified. “Women count, just not for mass shootings. They don’t do that kind of thing. Counting women would make it seem like mass shootings are a white-guy problem. It would mess up the numbers. And if black guys had their power taken away from them by liberals, they’d shoot the hell out of people, too. They do that in Chicago and Baltimore every day! Liberal cities, right?”
“Interesting points,” I smiled. “I hadn’t thought of running the numbers like that.”
“Well, you’re a psychologist, right?” he nodded amiably. “Numbers aren’t your thing. Glad I could help.”
He paid for his double espresso and drove off in a simple but stylish 2017 Lexus.
I sipped my green tea and pondered my friend’s reaction. I get it. He and I are well-educated, fairly well-paid, middle-aged white guys. We graduated high school long before teachers held “active shooter” drills after homeroom. The social, economic and political systems of power seem to benefit us. Maybe he’s right: If your business fails, or you’re addicted to painkillers, depressed or a disgruntled teen with an AR-15, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.
But maybe the deaths of despair and our weekly mass shootings are a “check engine” light for America. Working-class white families have been a key part of America’s social, political and economic engine for generations. If young white men feel so hopeless and disempowered they resort to shooting up their high-school classmates, middle-aged working-class white men and women are dying prematurely of “diseases of despair,” too. We haven’t fried America’s engine yet, but it’s long past time to take it in for repairs.