What drives a Black mass shooter? The Amsterdam News gathered experts to discuss contributing factors, including race and mental health, that may play a role in why people commit these random acts of violence en masse and how we can help prevent more from occurring.
Experts agree that statistically and historically Black and Brown people, particularly men, carry out mass shootings at significantly lower rates than white shooters. According to Statista’s Research Department, 66 out of 126 mass shootings between 1982 and February 2022 were carried out by white shooters in the U.S. In that time frame, 21 mass shootings were committed by Black shooters, and 10 shootings were committed by Hispanic/Latinos.
This is largely a reflection of racial distribution throughout the nation’s population, said the research. Hard and fast conclusions about race and mass shooters are hard to draw, but the numbers do clearly indicate that most mass shootings are carried out by men.
Dr. Wizdom Powell, a director of the Health Disparities Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health in Connecticut, studies modern racism and gender norms in Black men. Powell asserted that implicit racism can frame the way law enforcement classifies shootings. Shootings related to gang activity or gang violence are not necessarily classified as mass shootings. She said that the classification is important because the resources deployed to address and solve the issues are different.
“When you call something gang violence, I think people’s empathy goes down to zero because they think those people are killing themselves,” said Powell. “You know, it’s their problem. Nevermind the victims.”
Powell said that in the event of a mass shooting incident there is usually a “sympathy” conveyed for a person as a “complicated human” as opposed to a person of color who was involved in a gang shooting. “When do you get a full picture of that person? Who they were as a child, all of the traumas they experienced, their lack of resources,” said Powell.
Powell thinks there’s a conflation in general between individuals who are mentally ill and those who commit mass shootings. She said mass shootings are a massive public health crisis with many factors contributing, with mental illness being one of many.
The city-wide manhunt for alleged 62-year-old, Black subway mass shooter Frank Robert James terrorized commuters on Tuesday, April 12, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. On the N train, at the 36th Street subway station, James fired numerous gunshots inside of the subway car, causing serious injuries to 16 people but no deaths. He was wearing a mask and reflective jacket, threw smoke bombs, and used a Glock 17 pistol he purchased in Ohio, said police.
At the time of the attack, the cameras were out at three stations due to a technical issue, said police. For about 30 hours after the shooting he had blended in with commuters on the bus and trains. By Wednesday afternoon, thanks to James and others calling the tip line, he was taken into custody in Lower Manhattan and then to a federal court in Brooklyn.
Police said in videos he posted publicly on YouTube before the attack, James had railed against the subway system, homelessness in the city, and directed anger towards Mayor Eric Adams. He had made statements like, “What are you doing, brother?” and “What’s happening with this homeless situation?” in a video to Adams.
Prosecutors have charged James with conducting a violent, terrorist attack on a mass transportation system and he could face life in prison. It’s still hard to understand why he chose to do what he did though.
“When there is an incident like this that occurs among men from historically resilient yet excluded populations, there’s much more of a focus on it,” said Powell. “I think [it gives] folks an opportunity to confirm some of their stereotypic biases, like if you believe that Black men are angry.”
Powell said that the emotionality or interior lives of Black men are always spoken about with an undue amount of concentrated attention on their anger. She strives to deconstruct the stereotype of the ‘angry Black male.’ She said that there is a prevailing presumption that anger is somehow bad or pathological when it’s actually a legitimate response to emotional suffering and injustice. So when an incident that fits the stereotype of the ‘angry Black male’ occurs, people hyper focus on it because it confirms their bias.
“I think there is a disproportionality in our reporting about these incidents by race,” said Powell, “we also tend to paint the picture of these shooters more sympathetically, when the shooters are non-Hispanic white males as opposed to males from other socially marginalized groups.”
In the 1960s, said Powell, there was a shift in the way that the field of psychology and psychiatry viewed Black men and their symptomatology while civil rights protests were erupting around the country. Prior to the ’60s “middle class, white housewives” were diagnosed with schizophrenia more often, but there was a sharp uptick among Black males afterwards. “Again, reminiscent of an earlier time where Black people’s quest for liberation was pathologized,” said Powell.
Powell said that health and science is still at the “tip of the iceberg” in identifying symptoms of depression in Black men. She said her studies have found that societal racism or experiencing racism or secondary traumas of racial reckoning is definitively at the root of Black and Brown male depression.
Dr. Joel Dvoskin is a clinical psychologist based in Tucson, Arizona who studies mass homicides as well as people with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders. He compared mass shooters to someone who commits suicide, as in they want to give up on life as they’re living it because of psychological pain and a loss of hope.
“Now if you add to that someone who’s given up hope, feels despair, and add rage to that, then you have someone who wants to end their life literally and figuratively with a bang,” said Dvoskin. “I’m not going to be insignificant this day.”
Dvoskin didn’t want to speculate as to why historically Black men haven’t committed mass shootings when they “have as much right to despair as white men and they have as much right to anger as white men.” But he posits that the more people who are hopeless and suicidal about their circumstances the more the chances that a small percentage of them will “take others with them when they go.”
Dvoskin also theorized that gun ownership or access to guns among white male shooters versus Black shooters may be a contributing factor in mass shootings. In fact, Slate reported that during the Trump administration gun ownership went up among all demographic groups, but especially rose among Black gun owners.
“There’s some common themes in people who commit mass shootings,” said Dvoskin. “They are often angry, often depressed, they often feel insignificant, and have grievances. But there are a lot of people who have those and don’t shoot anybody.”
Dvoskin said that the myth of mental illness being connected to mass shootings was perpetrated by gun profiteers. He said the notion that mass shootings have to do with serious mental illness is wrong, incorrect and scapegoating of the worse kind. “But what is true is that people who commit mass shootings often are in crisis,” said Dvoskin.
Like Dvoskin, Powell said that there are plenty of Black men that transmute suffering into positive action regardless of how they’re feeling about race and clearly don’t commit mass shootings. “So there’s evidence of course of our capacity to ‘bounce back’ from these experiences,” said Powell. “It is important for us to recognize that over time, that bounce back also comes at significant mental health costs for Black males.”
Powell said that the larger social forces help understand the linkages between mass shootings, mental health and outcomes in Black males. But the series of events in a person’s life and access to care is what determines if a person pulls the trigger or not. She said what is clear is the need for mental health services in Black communities, indigenous communities, and Brown communities; a need that is even more pronounced in overlapping homeless communities.
“We would be missing a critical moment,”said Powell, “for us to look at the systems that we have set up and ask ourselves, are we serving every person who has a mental health need well, and if we’re not, what are we going to do about it?”
Dr. Michael Broder is a former chief psychologist in the Philadelphia Police Department now in private practice. He looks at police departments’ stress management training programs at all levels.
He considers the subway mass shooter to be an example of a “failed criminal justice system” that didn’t give him adequate resources when he was released. Broder doesn’t think there are “sane” rational motivations for anyone to commit mass shootings, regardless of their living situation. “It’s just as bad if you’re shot by someone with mental health issues as you are if you’re shot by someone ‘healthy,’” said Broder.
From a police perspective, he said law enforcement have to make “split decisions” in a dangerous line of work. That, however, is not an excuse to profile unhoused Black men in subways, said Broder.
“It couldn’t be a profile because Black people, white people, people of every color or ethnicity commit crimes. Son of Sam was a Jewish white male. Ted Bundy was a supposedly good looking college educated, smart guy, and then you have monsters and everything in between,” said Broder regarding racial profiling.
Broder said racial profiling is an “injustice to a lot of innocent people” and doesn’t help prevent crimes. He does, however, agree with Mayor Eric Adams that the answer to preventing subway crime is more transit police patrols and stationing cops at more stations.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w