History: Fear, Racism, and Guns

On Friday afternoon, one of Playboy’s editors asked me to write about the gun violence and policing we’d seen over the past few days. My piece is here (Warning – it’s Playboy, so while there’s no nudity, there’s plenty of reference to sex on the site): In the piece, I tried to lay out some of the interlocking histories of racism, gun violence, and fear-mongering that come together to put us in this spot:

I’m most proud of the parts of the piece that pull out pieces of our history – just pieces, of course, given that this is a single essay – and thought I would paste a selection here:

Racism, Slavery and Gun Ownership
All three have long been inextricably linked, first in the rights of slave owners to bear arms, then by the taking away of arms from freed African-Americans after the Civil War. In the 1960s the NRA repeated this process by celebrating the disarming of black civilians. African-American men have long been presented to white American culture as dangerous, whether armed or not. Lawrence Vogelman, after the Rodney King trial, wrote about the “Big Black Man Syndrome,” the ways in which our images and language promote the idea that black men are especially scary. We saw a recent manifestation of that language in Darren Wilson’s description of Michael Brown as a “demon.” …

In the 1980s the National Rifle Association decided to shift from promoting its cause through wholesome images of hunters and smiling (armed) children to emphasizing the use of firearms to ward of an onslaught of rapists and robbers. They weren’t alone. The Willie Horton ad–and more importantly the GOP decision to hype Horton as a way to attack Dukakis–helped George H. W. Bush become president, a message that other political hopefuls didn’t miss.

The racial aspects of the War on Drugs long promoted the idea that black communities needed to be heavily policed. “Broken Windows” policing, one aspect of the War on Drugs, leads to over-policing, criminalizing people for minor offenses and racial profiling…

The War on Drugs was joined by the War on Terror, both presenting endless opportunities for merchants, pro-gun activists and politicians to sell fear…police have become increasingly militarized both in attitude and equipment. Fear ratchets up. Gun sales boom.

The whole piece is here.  Here’s a good piece from The Guardian that covers much of the same ground.

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