Have we been having the wrong conversation about the Second Amendment?
We’ve talked a lot about story, revision and mythology in recent weeks, and few topics in American culture are as built on mythology as our gun culture.
We’ve been having the same mind-numbing arguments about who should have access to guns and what types of guns should be allowed for most of my life.
But Carol Anderson’s new book, “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” changed everything for me. This week on the podcast, Anderson and I talked about the real history of the Second Amendment and I realized we’ve been having the wrong debate.
The question isn’t what the Second Amendment protects, it’s who. From the very beginning, the Second Amendment was about protecting white Americans from Black people. The formation of local militias was to prevent slave uprisings, not government tyranny.
This discussion won’t offer any easy answers about what should be done about guns now. But it will at least give us a better sense of how we got to this point.
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Below is a transcript of the episode.
John Hammontree: When we last spoke, we talked about voting rights and your work investigating the history of voter suppression. You have a new book out that looks at a history that’s even, maybe not more fraught, but as fraught in American history. And that’s the history of gun rights, particularly as it pertains to Black Americans. And my understanding is you started this investigation in the wake of the death of Philando Castile. Tell us about why you decided to write about this topic.
Carol Anderson: One of the things that really struck me in my books with Bloomsbury. I have what I call my Bloomsbury trilogy now. And what I’m fascinated by is the fractured citizenship of African Americans. “White Rage” covered a range of those fractures. “One Person, No Vote” really went after voting rights.
And this one really popped up, because in the wake of the killing of Philando Castile, and the virtual silence of the NRA, where a Black man is killed simply because he has a licensed-to-carry gun, right? He has a licensed weapon; And the police shoot him dead. People were asking, journalists were asking, “don’t African Americans have Second Amendment rights?” And I went, “Oh, that is a great question.”
And I went hunting through history looking for “don’t African Americans have Second Amendment rights?” And it sent me back into the 17th century, into 17th century Virginia, 17th century America, you know, the colonies. Looking at the ways that African Americans were described and defined. And looking at the ways that the laws really blocked their access to weapons. And looking at those definitions that made African Americans, that made the enslaved, ferocious monsters, something to be feared. Something that you always had to defend against. Something that was a consistent threat in America. And that level of consistent threat is what I found as foundational to the Second Amendment, that sense of anti-Blackness. That Black people as threat.
Hammontree: You know, when I picked up the book, I thought, “Okay, I think I have a sense of what this book is going to be about.” You know, you look at the killing of Tamir Rice versus the arrest of Dylann Roof. 12 year old boy with a toy gun versus an adult man who had gone on a killing rampage and the way that they were treated differently. And that question that you said, you know, a lot of people have been asking, at least since the killing of Philando Castile, if not earlier, of whether or not Black people have Second Amendment rights.
You go much bolder than that. And you say that the Second Amendment itself is less about gun rights and individual gun rights and militia rights than it is about anti-Blackness itself. And you have the historical documentation to back it up. The earliest laws as they relate to guns, you were talking about the 17th century, were actually regarding whether or not Black people, enslaved or free, could own guns in America. Walk us through that time period up to the American Revolution.
Anderson: One of the things that we have is this constant fear of slave rebellions and this constant fear that the enslaved would kill plantation owners. Their owners. Would kill whites. And it’s like, how do we stop this quest for freedom? We know that we have kidnapped them. We know that we have put them in bondage. We know that we have tortured them. We know that we have extracted their labor. We know we have done all of these things. We know that folks really aren’t cool with this. So what are we going to do? And the answer is not “Well, I think what we really need to do is not enslave.”
That wasn’t what the response was.
Instead, the response was, “we’ve got to keep them down. And we’ve got to keep them subjugated. We’ve got to keep them under control.” And that control was to remove anything that could be used as a weapon for freedom. So this is why you see language in the laws in 1639 in Virginia, saying that the enslaved shall not have access to weapons. They cannot have arms. You know, and you will also see as there are these rebellions, that the laws become stricter and tighter and more constraining till we get to the Stono Rebellion in 1739 in South Carolina.
And at Stono, you had 20 enslaved men who are out on a road gang, building a road, and they’re out there day after day. And they are, in fact, basically surveying what is going on. They’re looking at what did the guard rotations look like? How many people are here? Where are the weapons kept? And we know that Florida is close. And in Florida, which was controlled by Spain, there was no slavery. “If we can get to Florida, we can be free.”
So on a Sunday, where there were only a couple of men, they killed those two men, and they took the weapons that those men were guarding. And then they took off on a march to freedom. And the alarm bells sounded. The law had that, white men had to carry their guns at all times. And so they were in church and the alarm goes off and the white men pick up their guns in the church and go hunting for these enslaved men who were on the march to freedom.
It was the bloodiest uprising in colonial North America. 60 people were killed, 20 whites and 40 African Americans.
Stono scared the bejeebers, and that’s the scholarly term, scared the bejeebers out of the enslavers. Scared them. So there was a law passed that if you find any enslaved person trying to get to Spanish Florida, you capture them, you scalp them. I mean, wow.
Then comes the law of 1740, the Negro Act of 1740. That law became the definitive law, where it said that those who are of African descent are absolute slaves. Absolute slaves. For those who are here now and for those who are yet to be born. And it had that they are inherently criminal and that you had strictures on access to weapons and access to literacy, access to books. It was, “how do we shut this thing down.”
And so in there, you see the seeds, you see inherently criminal, inherently violent, they must be subjugated. Subjugated by whites at all times. And what Stono showed was the power of a militia in quelling a massive slave revolt. That became the protection for the enslavers. The militia was the protection. And that becomes so central to what would develop in terms of the Constitution.
Hammontree: Put a pin in that and make sure people remember that when we come to the Second Amendment debate here in a few minutes. But at that time, there was not a whole lot of daylight between state militias and slave patrols. They were paying white men to search for guns and any form of weapons for any Negro person’s house, whether enslaved or free at that time.
Anderson: Yes, I mean, there was very little distinction. The slave patrols were usually smaller units and the militias were larger units. And if there was a slave revolt, then the militia would subsume the slave patrols. But they were on the hunt. And it got to the point where basically every white person was part of a slave patrol. They had the authority to question someone Black, “Show me your papers. Why are you out here? Who owns you? Where are you supposed to be?”
And so that kind of sense of “white is right and Black is consistently suspect without the benefit of the doubt,” it is rooted in this moment.
Hammontree: Now, we’ve talked a lot on this season about storytelling. So I just kind of want to walk through the common story that we hear about the American Revolution and the Second Amendment. And then I want you to tell me that the true story. This is a story that I think a lot of us learned in elementary school, American history classes, even to some extent, you know, in musicals like Hamilton. You know, you have this ragtag group of colonists who, in almost every depiction, are universally white, and they go up against the British Empire. And through sheer force of will, this group of colonists, this militia, this colonial army are able to take on King George and they win the American Revolution.
And they come home and a few years later, when creating the constitution, as part of the Bill of Rights, they say, “Okay, you know what, we want to make sure that there’s never a tyrannical government ever again. And so we’re gonna protect the militia’s right to fight back against their government by enshrining Second Amendment rights, the guarantee to bear arms and the guarantee to a well regulated militia.”
That’s the story that, you know, at least I learned commonly growing up. I think it’s one that a lot of us learned growing up. And it’s a lot more complicated than that. And it’s a lot more diverse than that. So tell us about what really happened.
Anderson: It absolutely is much more complicated and much more diverse. When the war started, all of the colonies had a ban against Black people serving in the Continental Army. They had a ban on it. But as the war kept going, one of the things that became clear was that this militia that we herald as being the stalwarts of American democracy and this fight for freedom, they weren’t as capable. They weren’t always competent. There were times when they would refuse to show up to the battle. There are times when they would take off running from the battle.
Their ability to take on a professional army was so haphazard that George Washington was beside himself. And Governor Morris out of New York, one of the founding fathers, he said, depending upon the militia to fight against a foreign invasion is like depending upon a broken reed. They just wouldn’t show up.
And this is when it became really clear that there weren’t enough white men willing to fight for this freedom and that Britain had laid out a decree saying that those who are enslaved by the rebels, if they come and fight for the British, the British will guarantee their freedom. Hoooooo. So you start seeing this massive drove of Black folks going over to the British to fight for freedom, because they weren’t getting freedom under the slavers. This is when the Americans are looking up going, it’s a Scooby Doo moment.
In the North, they began to issue decrees saying, “we will emancipate black men who fight for the rebels, who fight for us. We will guarantee your freedom.” And so you start seeing that this Continental Army becomes very diverse. But as the war moves south, as the British move south, right? Because they said we’re going to hit the soft underbelly, because that very diverse army had really stiffened. So they hit Georgia, and Georgia just collapsed. And so then they were headed to South Carolina and Charleston.
And so George Washington sends down his emissary, John Laurens, who was part of a storied family, a prominent family in South Carolina. And Laurens is pleading with the South Carolina government, “You’ve got to arm the enslaved. You don’t have enough white man to take on what the British are bringing. You really, really don’t. You see what they just did to Georgia? You really, really don’t.” And South Carolina was like, “no, we’re not doing that. We are not doing that.”
And that is because South Carolina had really deployed the vast majority of its white men as part of the militia to keep the enslaved down. That was the priority. How do we keep the enslaved down? So when that’s your priority, then thinking about how are we going to arm them to fight against the British to help create the United States of America? The South Carolinians were like, “we don’t even know if this is a country worth fighting for. You come to us with that kind of horrific plan and arm the enslaved? Oh no, we’re not doing that.”
And so then Washington sends down general Nathaniel Green and General Green is pleading, pleading, “arm the enslaved. Do you see they got 8000 British troops? You’ve got 750 white men. This is not going to be pretty.” And South Carolina was like, “No, we’re not doing it.”
And so here, in this moment, you see one of the things that becomes one of those recurring patterns in American history. That when it comes to the United States of America or white supremacy, white supremacy rules over the union. It rules over the creation of a strong United States. It rules over the value systems that we say we are fighting for. And that’s what we see happening there in South Carolina.
Now, as we know, the US did win that war. But what became really clear was that the militia was not as functional, as valiant, as essential as our narrative, our mythic narrative, becomes. But it was essential in creating… that myth was essential in creating a United States. And so that myth of: Wow, look at our valiant white men fighting for this nation, you know, to get rid of this tyrannical government. And what you get is this erasure of the role of Black folks in this war?
Hammontree: Did they actually get the emancipation they were promised for fighting in this war?
Anderson: I believe that some did. But being a free Black in this moment, didn’t give you a lot of liberties. There were all kinds of strictures on free Blacks.
Hammontree: And certainly later on, and probably right then too, free Black people were often kidnapped and sold back into slavery, you know, there was not much bearing on it.
Anderson: It was such a tenuous hold on freedom on what freedom meant. It was so conditional, and predicated really on anti-Blackness, so that we can even – I’m getting ready to jump a bit – even to the point where we have these laws coming in about defining who is an American citizen in that first Congress. And we have laws about, rulings about, who can get a passport. And Black people couldn’t get a passport, because that’s only for American citizens. So free Blacks couldn’t get one.
And you get the Dred Scott decision of 1857, where Chief Justice Roger Taney says they are not now, nor have they ever been citizens. Because if they were citizens, they would be able to go from state to state. If they were citizens, they would be able to own a gun.
Hammontree: You commonly get, particularly from white people, this sense of “Oh, well, you can’t judge them by the values of the time.” But even at the time, they knew enough to know that Black people were people when it was convenient for them to be so when it was time to count the number of people living in a state to determine representation, but not when it was time to count who should be taxed.
Anderson: Right, right. Exactly. Exactly. I mean, so there was an awareness that Black people were actually people but the tenor of the times led the kind of sophistry that “they are only people when we need them to be people. They are only people when it benefits us.” And this is how we get to the compromises made in the US Constitution.
So we have the Articles of Confederation. And the Articles of Confederation weren’t working. You had the states having tariffs against each other. You had them minting their own currency. You had them making their own individual foreign policies. I mean just not working. A group gets together to amend the Articles of Confederation. But as they’re talking, it’s really clear, you can’t fix what’s this broken. So James Madison is one of those key people in this group. And they begin drafting a new constitution for the United States.
And as they’re drafting this constitution, this is when the deals get brokered. This is when the South is like, “Oh, we’re not signing on unless we get what we want.” And they made it very clear that they were willing to have a debilitated United States of America, a nonfunctioning United States of America, unless they could get the protections for slavery under this constitution.
So they get the 20 year expansion of the Atlantic slave trade. And when you talk about the knowledge of the time, they knew that the Atlantic slave trade was barbarous. They knew that it was heinous. It was a violation of basic rights. What they also knew was that there was no way they were going to get the United States of America if they didn’t concede to having a 20-year expansion on this heinous, barbarous trafficking of human beings.
Hammontree: And they went out of their way with doublespeak to not mention slavery in the Constitution itself. So clearly they knew.
Anderson: Absolutely. I mean, it’s like Beetlejuice, right? They were like, “we cannot say this word or the demon will come out.” And so the three-fifths clause has that kind of wording that is so obscure that they don’t say “we are counting the enslaved as three fifths of the human being.” Instead, they’re like representation will be based on those who are free, those who can be taxed, except Indians and those who are otherwise other labor, dada, dada, dada, dada. All other persons. So it is a way of saying it without saying it so that you could say, “well, that’s not what we said.” Yes, it is what you said. It’s what you meant.
And that was to provide power and protection for the South. The South looked up and said, you know, Massachusetts is huge, Pennsylvania is huge, New York is huge. We will be out voted consistently, if we go into this Congress, where you’ve got this representation by population thing happening. So we need to up our population. So all of a sudden, the folks that they argued were only property became human beings that had to be counted for representation. And this becomes part of the deal, the brokering of this US Constitution.
There was also The Fugitive Slave Act that was in there. And so now that this draft constitution has made it out of the gate, it now has to go to the states for ratification. When ratification was happening at first it was like smooth, smooth, smooth. And then all of a sudden, boom, it was just like that hump. It wasn’t getting over that hump. And New Hampshire was the first one that was like, “Man, I’m not feeling this. I’m not feeling this.” And they went, uh oh. So then they looked down at Virginia. Virginia is huge, right?
And Virginia has Patrick Henry. whom the narrative we get is “give me liberty or give me death.” Patrick Henry was a slave owner and he hated the Constitution. He wanted to go back to a weak central government. He took on James Madison.
His biographer says that Madison is really good at the Virginia straddle, talking northern but acting Southern.
And George Mason. Patrick Henry and George Mason really teamed up like tag team taking on the Federalists and the Constitution. What they argued, was that the Constitution put control of the militia under federal control. That meant that Virginia would be left defenseless, as they saw it, when there is an uprising. When there is a slave uprising, that they could not count on the North. They could not count on the federal government and those in Congress to deploy the militia to help out in the midst of a slave revolt.
And they were like, “you know, the North detests slavery and we will be left defenseless. I mean, can we really count on those folk?” and Madison is arguing, “look, you got the Atlantic slave trade. Look, you got the three fifths clause. Look, you got the fugitive slave clause, you’re protected.” And Patrick Henry’s like, “No, we are not.” And so you started seeing the momentum for a new constitutional convention. And that was the last thing James Madison wanted, because he’s like, “if these folks get another bite at this, we’re gonna end up with the Articles of Confederation again.”
And one of the things that was coming through was there was no Bill of Rights. They didn’t call it a bill of rights, but they were like, “there are no rights in here to protect us.” And so Madison knew that in order to short circuit this push for a new constitutional convention, and to quell the dissent that was happening from the anti-Federalists, in that first Congress, he was going to have to craft a bill of rights.
And you begin to think about our bill of rights. The right to freedom of the press, that the state shall make no religion. There will be no state religion. Freedom of association. That you have the right not to be illegally searched and seized. You’ve got the right to a speedy and fair trial. Wow. To explain why you have this militia amendment in there is to understand that this is the payoff to the anti-Federalists.
This is the payoff to Patrick Henry and to George Mason. Look, the militia is here. And what it does is it says that the feds cannot interfere with the militia. You are safe to have your militia to defend against slave uprisings. So sitting here in the Bill of Rights, we have an amendment that is about denying Black people their rights.
Hammontree: Coming up after the break more from Professor Carol Anderson about the history of gun rights in America and the latest backlash to voting rights.
Because I think a lot of people could listen to that and say, “Well, okay, sure. But like reasonably, it was also maybe about fear of the British government or fear of the Spanish.” But everybody at that time, my understanding is, knew what militias were for. They were for defending against slave uprisings, because they hadn’t really defended against the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania at the time. They were for defending white people against slave uprisings. And that wording was not about a standing Continental Army, we wouldn’t have a standing US Army until what 150 some odd years later? After World War Two. It was about standing militias and militias were about slavery. And so that was the context that people knew at the time, but that we have stripped from historical discussion.
Anderson: So what they knew at the time was that militias were no good against a foreign invasion. They knew that it was like really clear in their heads. What was also clear for them is that Shay’s Rebellion had happened right before the Constitutional Convention. Shay’s Rebellion was in Massachusetts, and what had happened there, it was a militia that attacked the Massachusetts government because they were angry about taxation and about property seizures. And so they had stormed the courthouses. They were on their way to storming the armory.
The government couldn’t get any militia to take on Shay’s rebellion. In fact, some of those militiamen joined Shay’s rebellion. And it took Boston merchants to pay for basically a mercenary force to take on Shay’s rebellion to quell the uprising there.
So that sense that the militia is there for protecting against the tyranny of governments? In fact, what they saw was the tyranny coming from the militia. That was what was driving, “let’s put this thing under federal control.” And then you got that massive pushback from Virginia. And Madison is scared out of his bejeebers.
And part of the other argument, tyou get the historical argument that you get, was that this was about a fear of a standing army. There was that fear of a standing army because of the red coats. But what they knew, again, was that the militia was really no match for a professional army. And that what the militia really did well was to quell slave uprisings, to help slave patrols go through the slave cabins just hunting for contraband, weapons and books and writing paper, writing instruments. That’s what the militia was really good at.
Hammontree: And the original wording of what would become the Second Amendment wasn’t what we wound up with at the end. There was a lot of pushback from Southern states and Southern representatives to make it clearer that this is about our right to have a militia.
Anderson: In fact, part of what it did was the original wording had language in there about conscientious objectors. If you’ve got like this religious reason why you don’t want to be bearing arms and fighting, you don’t have to be part of this militia. And that was removed, we don’t see it in our current version. That was removed. The militia was about what the militia did was to control Black people.
Hammontree: That religious exemption could have commonly been understood at the time, you know, Quakers didn’t want to fight against enslaved people trying to win their freedom.
Anderson: Yes. I mean, and that was one of the arguments that was happening in these debates was, “I mean, are we really going to send Quakers down to Georgia? Are we really going to do that?” And so that was what was happening in the Constitutional Convention, in the debates about the militia.
Hammontree: And that period between Revolutionary War and the Constitution and the Civil War, which will mark a turning point, you cover in great detail. But I think a common takeaway, for me at least, is this sense of deja vu from what we’re seeing right now, which is that white uprisings and white rebellions are not treated the same way that the uprisings of the enslaved are or even then just peaceful, Black free, people owning guns, period.
Anderson: I mean, that was one of the things about writing this and writing it in this moment. So seeing at Shay’s rebellion, for instance, where they take on the Massachusetts government, and there really are no punishments and those who were punished got pardons.
The same thing happened with the Whiskey Rebellion with the Whiskey Rebellion, again over taxation and property seizures. They were torturing federal officials, tarring and feathering them. They attacked the home of the major tax man in Pennsylvania. And they took on the US Army, this militia took on the US Army and won that battle. No consequences. It’s like, wow, wow.
It’s like writing this and seeing the January 6 insurrection and having it whitewashed as “oh these were just tourists.” It is astonishing. It is, you know, it’s apocryphal when Mark Twain said, history may not repeat itself, but the sho do rhyme. And you know, and we’re just hearing the rhymes. Bum babum ba bum. It just keeps constant like that.
Hammontree: But let’s fast forward to Civil War, you know, another war where the United States, the North, would not have won without the service of Black soldiers. And then, of course, after that war, there is the 14th Amendment, which does establish at least on paper, Black citizenship. Which we’ve discussed on paper doesn’t necessarily always mean anything. But did Black Americans have access to guns then? Did they have Second Amendment rights guaranteed to them after the 14th Amendment?
Anderson: On paper. But one of the things that you saw happening after the Civil War was white anger that slavery was over and white anger that the people that they had treated as property and subjugated were now free. And seeing, for instance, Black troops, as part of the occupying army in the South was just infuriating to these folks.
And you had Andrew Johnson, one of the worst presidents to ever grace the White House ever, issuing pardons to the Confederate leadership. And what that did was it allowed them to re-ensconce themselves in the Southern governments as they’re creating laws. And one of the laws that they created were something called the Black Codes.
And the Black Codes had in there, issues about labor, that Black people had to sign annual labor contracts and they couldn’t leave their employer before that time. It also had that they could have their labor auctioned off if they hadn’t signed a labor contract. And that they should be disarmed that Black people should not have guns. It was sitting there, right there after the Civil War.
Now, Black people had guns because of the Civil War. Because of their engagement. We had so many Black folks who fought for the Union. Ten percent of the Union Army was Black. There were 19,000 African Americans in the US Navy. They had their guns. And they understood the viciousness, the anger that was coursing through the South at the time. And that the guns were about the only thing standing between me and thee. If they were going to be breathing, they needed to have their guns.
And you had the rise of these white domestic terrorist groups, often linked with these Neo-Confederate governments who were just rampaging through the Black community killing and torturing and disarming. It was a bloodbath that was happening here in the South.
And the response of Andrew Johnson was like, “what?” What he heard were the pleas of white Southerners, like, “we’ve got these awful Black troops who are wearing these uniforms and carrying guns, you know, they’re here to kill all of the white people, we need help. And we wouldn’t have all of this bloodbath, if you would just get rid of these Black troops.” No, we would not have the bloodbath if you would stop killing Black folk.
The logic of that narrative then had Andrew Johnson removing Black troops from the South.
Hammontree: There is so much to cover in that period, the Jim Crow period, of all the rights that were systematically denied to Black people. And I know we’re pressed for time. So I’m going to fast forward again to that civil rights era, and to you know, the conversation around the Black Panthers and other groups that have said, “you know what? We have Second Amendment rights too and we’re going to have guns.” And states like California, and then-Governor Ronald Reagan, you know, responded with gun control measures targeting Black people. And that seems to be the common theme throughout history is that we’ve always had gun control. It’s just not controlled white people’s guns.
Anderson: Right. And when we have had gun control that has controlled white people’s guns, like in Georgia in the 1840s, the court stepped in and said “No, you cannot do that.” But the gun control for Black people that’s still in place. And we did have a measure that for the 1930s dealing with gangsters, and sub-machine guns, right?
But what we had happening in California in the 1960s, was the rise of the Black Panthers. And what drove the Black Panthers was the massive police brutality raining down on the Black community and raining down with absolutely no consequences. The cops were just beating and killing Black folks with impunity. And so the Panthers stepped up. And one of the things that they began to do was what was called “policing the police.”
And Huey Newton, who was one of the co-founders of the Black Panthers, knew California law. And he also knew the Second Amendment as it is written. And so he’s like, “we have the right to bear arms. And California law says, as long as we don’t interfere with an arrest, we have to stand 20 yards back or something like that, as long as we’re doing that we are well within our rights.” And so the Panthers would roll up on an arrest or roll up on the cops harassing somebody. And they are open carrying, because California law allowed you to open carry. That intimidated the bejeebers out of the police.
And they went running to Assemblyman Don Mulford, who was the Assemblyman for that area around Oakland. And they’re like, “we need help here.” And that help was to write a law, the Mulford Act that banned open carry, and they had help from the NRA in drafting this legislation. So again, how we often think about this gun control is that we have conservatives saying, how do we control the guns of Black folks? You know, how do we write a law that says we want gun control?
And we often don’t think of that as being Ronald Reagan, the NRA, and a conservative assemblyman, but that’s what we had, because you had the Panthers, who were openly patrolling the police. And it was to make that open carry illegal, which then would give police a reason to arrest the Panthers. To give them a legal foundation, because every time they tried to get up on the Panthers, the Panthers knew their rights. They’re like, “We don’t have a sawed off shotgun, all of our weapons are registered. They’re not stolen. They don’t have a round in the chamber. We’re not pointing them at anybody.”
They knew the specifics of the law and they abided by that law. So the point was to change the law to make the Panthers illegal.
Hammontree: And that points to a thread that, I guess has been sometimes implicit and often explicit, you know, from those laws being passed in Virginia in the 1600s, through stand your ground, Castle Doctrine, the individual right to bear arms, you know, as established much later than people think by the Constitution. There’s always been this implicit, and again, sometimes explicit narrative of it is the right for white people to protect themselves from Black people, or Hispanic people, as the case may be today. But it has never been a right for everyone.
Anderson: Exactly. And so that’s why I carried this story through to see. Because one of the things that struck me was that it didn’t matter what the legal status of black people were enslaved, free Black denizen, newly-emancipated Black, Jim Crow Black, post-civil rights Black, we were still dealing with the same kinds of inherent inequity in the application of the law because of the anti-Blackness.
So stand your ground, what that does is it says that if you perceive a threat wherever you have a right to be, you have the right to protect yourself using lethal force if necessary. So given that Black is the default threat, that kind of perception of, “I’m fearful, oh, I saw a Black man, I’m scared.”
This is why we have this massive imbalance in terms of when somebody white shoots somebody Black and claims stand your ground, they’re 10 times more likely than when somebody Black shoots somebody white for it to be found as a justifiable homicide. 10 times more likely. When a white person shoots somebody Black versus when a white person shoots somebody white, it’s 281% more likely that they are found justifiable. When somebody white shoot somebody Black.
When Black is the default threat, stand your ground is quicksand for African Americans.
Hammontree: You have written a history book. You make this case very clearly that the Second Amendment was racist at its root. I mean, it was anti-Black from the very beginning. What I’m curious about is, you know, what that means going forward? Because there are groups like the Panthers, or, you know, activists today, like Killer Mike, who say, “Well, you know, Black people should be armed. We should have Second Amendment rights.” And then there are, of course, efforts for greater gun control, you know, for everybody.
And so where do you fall on that divide? Can the Second Amendment ever be equally applied to everyone?
Anderson: Where I fall on that is that this is a society that has to do the work of anti-Blackness. As long as Black is the default threat, whether you’re armed or unarmed, Black is the threat. We see this with police killings. A Black man has a cell phone, he’s a threat. Shot dead. Black man may have a gun, like Philando Castile, legally. He’s a threat. Shot dead.
The issue for me isn’t the gun. The issue is the anti-Blackness. Where I do fall on is that there are some weapons that civilians should not have. These semi-automatic weapons, really, they have no purpose, but to hunt human beings. In the hands of civilians, it doesn’t make sense. But I also believe that one of the key underlying reasons why we have so much difficulty in really dealing with real gun safety laws, is because of the the lingering, underlying tectonic plate of anti-Blackness.
That fear of what gun safety laws mean is that whites will be left defenseless against Blacks. And I think about Jonathan Metzl’s “Dying for Whiteness,” where he talks about guns and how that fear, even when they have been hit with a massive tragedy because of gun violence, that fear [that] what gun safety laws mean is that they will be left defenseless from all of those folks coming in from the cities. All of those folks trying to take what I have. I mean, when I hear that, I hear George Mason and Patrick Henry talking about we will be left defenseless
To me, that’s what it comes down to, is we must deal with the anti-Blackness in this society. Because that thing does damage. Massive damage.
Hammontree: The last time that we spoke, we talked about the history of voting rights after the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act through the present. It seems like gasoline has been thrown on that fire in the last six months since we spoke. On the one hand 2020 election was a test of our democracy and democracy survived. On the other hand, a lot of people are worried that might be the last time that the democracy survives. So what’s your assessment of what’s happening right now?
Anderson: What we’re looking at is pure vintage white rage. What we saw in the 2020 election was, even in the midst of a pandemic, we had massive Black voter turnout. The turnout was so substantial and substantive, that what it did was to flip Georgia. And it flipped states that Trump had won previously. And it caused such a massive backlash in these Republican legislatures where they were like, “how are we going to stop this?”
So you know, they said, “Oh, we’ve got massive… look at all of this fraud.” But they couldn’t find massive voter fraud because it’s not there. But it becomes the smokescreen. Just like it did with the Mississippi Plan of 1890 to holler voter fraud, voter fraud, voter fraud, then to implement massive disenfranchisement laws. And to do so with race neutral language so that it gets by the 15th Amendment legally, but that it is targeted.
So you look here in Georgia, for instance, in Georgia, we had the law now limits dropboxes. Atlanta had 94 dropboxes in the 2020 general election. Under the new law, there will be 23. And those dropboxes had been available 24/7, now they’re going to be behind closed doors in a building. So when the building is open, you can put in your absentee ballot. When the building is closed, be’s that way sometimes.
What the Georgia legislature did was to look at every mechanism that African Americans use to access the ballot box and then to create hurdles to that access. So, you know, they said, well, we’re doing the drop boxes this way, because some drop boxes were overflowing. Well, the answer isn’t to eliminate the drop boxes and to put them behind closed doors. The answer is to have staff be able to empty the drop boxes on a regular basis. So they haven’t come up with the things that they’re identifying as the problems.
That’s not what’s in the legislation.
The legislation is looking at the ways that Black folks voted. The other part of that legislation is to go after the guardrails that were in place that allowed the election to be certified prevented Donald Trump from overturning the will of the people. And so it is to lower those guardrails by giving the Republican legislature the power to remove county boards of elections and install their own election czar, who will basically run the election and certify it.
So this is a full blown assault, it’s like, even if Black folks jump over all of the hurdles that we have put in place, we’re still going to be the ones who are going to determine what the results will be. This is the crisis that we’re under. This is why HR-1 which is now S-1 the For the People Act, and what HR-4 the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are absolutely essential.
These federal laws will provide a way to short circuit this massive disfranchisement, not only of Black voters, they’re going after young voters, they’re going after Asian voters, they’re going after Hispanic voters, they’re going after Native American voters. This thing is over 40 states.
Hammontree: And it’s interesting, cuz you know, listening to you talk earlier about the three-fifths compromise. And you know, those conversations that were happening at the founding of our country, there have always been Southern politicians and Southern elites who have wanted all of the benefits of every Black person in the South being counted so that they can accumulate that power, but they don’t want Black people or other Southern minorities to exercise their power in order to have that seat at the table.
Anderson: Right. So think about Florida. And remember Florida amendment four which reenfranchised 1.2 million returning citizens, those who had felony convictions. That was a major victory, because Florida had 1.7 million of the 6.1 million disfranchised felons in the United States. 1.7 million of them were in Florida alone.
Now Florida was able to count their heads for representation in Congress. But these folks could not vote, basically, permanently. Florida had what was close to permanent felony disenfranchisement.
They had this kind of sham gubernatorial re-enfranchisement commission that met four times a year. They had a backlog of over 10,000 cases. And it’s documented that Rick Scott, who was governor at the time, would ask questions like, are you a Republican? And so they show that those who said they were Republicans got their voting rights back at a much higher rate than those who were Democrats.
And they’re overwhelmingly Democratic voters. And this looks like a political threat. And so what they decided to do is to say, Well, you know, for your sentence to be over, you have to pay all of your fines, fees and court restitution. And then the courts ruled… because folks went, oh, Lord, that looks like a poll tax. I don’t have to pay my property tax to be able to vote, I don’t have to pay my income tax to be able to vote. But I’ve got to pay this fee in order to be able to vote?
And the court ruled that that this is not a poll tax, the people must pay in order to be able to get their voting rights back. But Florida doesn’t have to tell them how much they owe.
This is like the worst of the poll tax and the literacy test. So you know, where the literacy test was to be able to ask you an unanswerable question as your access to the ballot box. How many bubbles in a bar of soap? How high is up? You know, and you can’t answer those.
And that’s what Florida has done. How much do I owe, I don’t know? But you can’t vote.
Learn more about Dr. Carol Anderson and purchase her books at www.professorcarolanderson.org.
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