The NRA, the KKK, and the 2nd Amendment’s Black History

by Frederick Sparks

malcolm-x-by-any-means-necessary-276x400 Cover_Southern_horrors“A Winchester Rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.” – Ida B. Wells Barnett

Grabbing a group lunch after our latest Los Angeles Black Skeptics meeting, the conversation inevitably turned to the massacre in Newtown and the related issue of gun laws and gun control.  One new member expressed his opposition to more restrictive gun laws, primarily because he felt that any new restrictions would inevitably result in African-Americans having disproportionate lack of access to legal fireams, limiting blacks abilities to defend themselves against racist acts.

My immediate response was to argue the far greater harm from the prevalence of firearms in our society.  But hours later I remembered the quote above from Wells-Barnett, the anti-lynching advocate, journalist, and women’s suffrage advocate. Barnett offered this observation in her pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, which documented her research on lynching.  Barnett felt black families needed to be so armed

…for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.

Barnett’s call for lethal black self-defense rested against a back drop of discriminatory laws that deprived black citizens of the cherished 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.  Many colonies (and later states) passed laws prohibiting both slaves and freemen from owning firearms, particularly after the failed slave revolt led by Nat Turner.   Gun ownership was seen by racist whites as a privilege that would elevate “Negroes” to the status of free whites and as a dangerous threat to white rule.

The National Rifle association supposedly opposed gun laws that restricted African-American gun ownership and  in some instances offered support to Black Americans seeking to defend themselves with firearms.  In 1958, retired Marine Robert Williams opened a chapter of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina. Monroe was also Klan country, and the KKK mounted several vicious assaults agains African-Americans in Monroe.   In 1960, Williams applied for and was granted a charter to establish an NRA chapter in Monroe; the association also provided firearms training materials. Mr. Williams and other black NRA members in Monroe subsequently successfully defended themselves with firearms against an attack coordinated between the KKK and the local police.

This history prompted erstwhile civil rights icon Ann Coulter to opine that all blacks should be supporters of the NRA; Coulter also recounted the story of Martin Luther King, Jr being denied a concealed weapons permit.  Coulter instructed us that, as with slavery, it was the Republican Party and the NRA that were on the side of black people, not the libs and Dems.

This analysis is of course anachronistic.  Whatever the NRA and the Republican Party represented then, their coordinated efforts in the current political arena have hardly served the advancement of black American well being.  And the type of white racist violence that poses the greatest threat to black lives today is hardly addressed by the 2nd Amendment.  Would the fortunes of Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis have been better served by more liberal gun laws? If anything, their deaths were facilitated by a gun obsessed, shoot first culture.

Not to mention the fear of all firearms needed to defend hearth and home being taken away is a red herring.  For one, guns in the home are almost never used for self-defense, and in fact, a gun in the home increases the chances that one will be shot by an assailant.  Also, feckless politicians are barely getting around to proposing laws that would limit the accessibility of assault rifle and high magazine capacity firearms; even if these laws are passed there would still be plenty weaponry available for self-defense.

For better or worse, that Winchester rifle isn’t going anywhere soon.

Nice White Boys Next Door and Mass Murder

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Standing in line at the California Science Center the day of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary school, my students wondered aloud about the race of the shooter.  “More than likely he was white,” they agreed. As the only people of color waiting to be admitted to the exhibit, their open question about race elicited visible unease from a group of elderly white women across the line from us.

According to a Mother Jones timeline of mass shootings from the 1980s to the present, the majority of American mass murderers have been white males.  The most infamous young killers—the Columbine High shooters, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and now Adam Lanza—share a common cultural theme and national narrative. “Deranged” loners who came from lower to upper middle class nuclear families, their murder sprees forever shattered white suburbia’s veneer of normalcy.  Over the past decade, the post-mass murder mantra has been grindingly familiar—“this couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t happen HERE, in our idyllic (white) suburban community.”  Catastrophic violence is implicitly marked as the province of the other, the inner city, the cesspit jungle where poor children (of color), according to GOP sage Newt Gingrich, have no work ethic and thus no “habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it is illegal.”

And yet, methodically plotted acts of epic violence committed by young white males with mini arsenals aping video game assassins are increasingly the hallmark of “HERE”.  So no doubt the elderly white women’s unease came from a sense of deep existential displacement.  When you’ve been suckled on Ozzie and Harriet, its “hard” to have your whiteness referenced as a source of violence; especially by people of color.

As the unraced universal subject, white people are simply unaccustomed to being explicitly identified as white.  For many, the tired colorblind party line of white privilege means that just talking about race is racist.  Universal means normal, and even the most heinous white criminals (Gacy, Bundy, Dahmer, and the list goes on) are humanized by a back story of psychoanalysis, cable TV biopics, books, and pop culture reportage.  The wages of whiteness means not having to know the classic people of color ritual—i.e., that when big crime news breaks its pro forma for many African Americans and Latinos to find out the race of the perpetrator and then those of the victims.  If the perpetrator is white there is a collective sigh of relief that Middle America won’t have another dark savage, immigrant or Muslim community to demonize.  If the victims are of color, there is a short window before the media’s attention fades (ala the August massacre of six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin) and shifts to more important matters like Lindsey Lohan or missing white girls.

Black and brown children learn very early on that perceptions of race and criminality are intimately connected.  In high school when my friends and I found ourselves at the business end of Inglewood PD officers’ rifles because someone in our car “looked” like a burglary suspect, it was a rite of passage initiation.  The killing of African American teenager Trayvon Martin was a lightening rod because American youth of color saw the failure to bring his killer to justice as symptomatic of the devaluation of their lives.  Guilty until proven innocent, youth of color never have the privilege of being universally perceived as the “nice” boy (as Lanza has been described) or girl next door that wouldn’t hurt a fly.

According to a 2010 Blair-Rockefeller survey, many whites in post-racial America believe that blacks and Latinos are more lazy, unintelligent, and untrustworthy than either whites or Asians. If white Middle America views people of color as not having “white” values and “white” aptitude levels, then it’s no mystery why mainstream media pathologize people of color as naturally criminal and violent.  Black criminality can be boiled down to a rancid stew of shiftlessness, absentee fatherhood, and irresponsible motherhood.  Latino criminality stems from too much babymaking and gangbanging.  But like the moribund immigrant urban jungle of 19th  social reformer Jacob Riis’ nightmares, it’s the “inner city” that’s the guilty co-defendant.

Nonetheless, mass murder in an urban context is rare and mass shootings in schools of color are virtually unheard of.  Homicide is a leading cause of death for young African American men.  But contrary to the rap stereotype of Glock-toting men of color, an overwhelming majority of people of color are pro-gun control, while the majority of the white electorate is not.  The high school assailants in the Littleton, Colorado, the Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Santee, California shootings were steeped in a NRA besotted gun culture that fetishizes readily available firearms as the ultimate medium for violent white masculinity.

However, these youth were instantly transformed into symbols of troubled, tragically “misunderstood” teens.  National conversations about the perils of bullying dominated the airwaves.  It was accepted that these tragic figures were “our boys,” our recklessly wasted youth.  It was conventional wisdom that preventive mental health resources could have minimized their inner turmoil.  As the bloggers Three Sonorans note in their piece, “White Privilege and Mass Murder in America,” “whenever white men commit mass murders it is just a freak isolated incident, but when we look at other crime statistics for minorities the reason given is that it is something innate to their culture, to their family.  It is those people.”

With Columbine there was tacit understanding that these boys’ acts were symptomatic of a potentially imperiled national heritage.  Conversely, any time violence erupts in a black or Latino context it’s a racial indictment, an indictment of a community, not a reflection on the rogue acts of lost boys from salt of the earth homes.

As my students and I left the Science center, bracing for more news about the scope of the attack, it was clear that the tragedy would dominate the news for weeks to come.  The senseless slaughter of children from the “perfect” town may finally prompt serious bipartisan legislation to curb the barbaric gun lobby. But it will not prompt analysis of the violent masculinity at the heart of whiteness.  And if any of these nice white boy shooters had been black the national sentiment would have echoed the biting comment made by my student Jamion: “Send those niggers back to Africa.”