Mass Shootings

Feminist Philosopher Explains Jordan Peterson's Biggest Mistake, Makes a Bigger One

Mass shooters are not disproportionately white, despite what you may have heard.


Jordan Peterson
Jason Franson/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Vox recently invited Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, to critique Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist whose meteoric rise to fame and unflinching criticism of political correctness has launched a thousand takes, at Reason and elsewhere.

Manne raises some interesting points. Unfortunately, she also commits a glaring error—one that is more obviously wrong than anything she identifies in Peterson's work. Asked to identify the biggest mistake ("moral, philosophical, or otherwise") in Peterson's bestselling book 12 Rules for Life, Manne points to Peterson's analysis of "mass shootings in general, and school shootings in particular," which he says are caused by a kind of social angst, or "crisis of being."

I don't find Peterson's explanation particularly convincing, though existential angst is a broad enough diagnosis that I suppose it could be correct in some fairly useless and non-falsifiable sense. But while Peterson might be wrong about what causes mass shootings, Manne is certainly mistaken about who commits them. By blaming this angst, she writes, Peterson "takes on a huge burden of explaining why white women, people of color, nonbinary folks, and so on, almost never act on our existential angst and despair in this way. Because, as you know, the vast majority of school shooters have been white men."

Yes, most mass killers are white—but white people represent three-quarters of the U.S. population. If anything, mass killers are disproportionately non-white. According to Slate's Daniel Engber, who parsed Mother Jones's mass shooting database earlier this year, about 56 percent of mass shooters are white:

Judging by those newer numbers, and the most current census estimate that 76.9 percent of Americans are white, the whites-are-overrepresented-among-mass-shooters meme appears even less accurate. Perpetrators that Mother Jones classifies as Asian make up 7.4 percent of the data set, versus an estimated 5.7 percent of the population, while those MoJo identifies as black represent 17.0 percent of the mass shooters in the database versus an estimated 13.3 percent of the population. According to this data set, then, Asians and black Americans are overrepresented among mass shooters by about the same proportion (a bit more than one-fourth) that whites are underrepresented.

That database covers mass shootings in general (and is flawed in that it probably undercounts mass shootings that happened further back in time). It might be more accurate to say that Columbine-style mass shootings specifically committed in schools are disproportionately perpetrated by white people, but there have only been 8 of those kinds of attacks—shootings in which at least four people were shot to death in a school—since 1996. Schools are actually so safe that it's pretty useless to make statistically sound racial generalizations about the kinds of mass murders committed there.

Manne claimed that "white women, people of color, nonbinary folks, and so on, almost never act on our existential despair this way." (If she had stopped at women, she would have been on much firmer ground.) But the truth is that all sorts of people—usually men, yes—of all different colors and creeds are capable of horrible things. Whether or not curing our existential dread is the solution, there is no evidence that whiteness itself is the problem, despite what so many pundits would have us believe.