Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Serendipity: Guns, Culture and Race

I chanced upon two unexpected places in the last 24 hours: one in the flesh and the other virtual. Together they offer a glimpse into America in the Age of Obama.

Just a Hobby, or Preparing for the Unthinkable?
I returned last night from a business trip to southwest Ohio. It was the first time I had been in that part of the state for a while and it left me with some fresh impressions. One was how metropolitan Columbus has expanded. It’s one thing to read about population growth in central Ohio. It’s quite another thing to see the evidence of it.

A deeper impression was made by a stop at Cabela’s, the large outdoor retailer that has just opened a shop in Delaware County’s Polaris Center, just north of Columbus. We had been surprised to notice the store as we stopped for gas on our way downstate. Turns out the Michigan retailer had just opened its first store within the week.

Hunting, fishing, and camping aficionados are Cabela’s prime market. To these eyes camouflage attire was more prevalent among Cabela patrons than Ohio State insignia.

It was sobering to see the steady stream of customers heading towards the weapons area. As I waited while my law enforcement friend shopped, my eyes wandered over some of the merchandise displays. Especially fascinating was the looping video that showed a wounded fowl decoy luring affiliated prey into easy range.

I felt to some degree as if I had slipped into an alien world. I left with an overwhelming sense of how difficult it will be to enact substantial gun reform in this country any time soon.

I happen to agree with gun rights advocates who argue that creating a safer America depends on changing the culture.

I believe that the Second Amendment reference to the right of the people to bear arms has been hijacked by conservatives and the Supreme Court in just the same way the Fourteenth Amendment was once undermined to justify segregation and Jim Crow laws. Despite the unmistakable correlation between high fire-death rates and high levels of gun ownership, “…income, development, and culture appear to drive gun-crime rates more than simple gun availability.”

The Second Amendment reads, from beginning to end: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Strict constructionists have a duty to ask themselves why — if the right to bear arms is absolute — the first part of the Amendment is even there.

The violent strains of American society may run even deeper than its racist ones, and we know how tenacious the latter are. [See the next post.] Since these strains go hand in hand even now, securing a fuller understanding the Second Amendment may be even more of a long-term battle than the painful and still ongoing struggle to create a more equitable society.

Many of my learned black friends see this arming of America as an inchoate step in the formation of a rogue Militia that will emerge as a last line of defense against the browning of America.

• • •

In the meantime, in checking my online New York Times account, I happened across a letter to the editor from a Cleveland State law professor, Lolita Buckner Inniss[1]. She was commenting on a guest op-ed column by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Shopping While Black: Racism in Everyday Life”. 

Forest Whitaker
Coates’ column was prompted by an event occurring at his Manhattan neighborhood deli, where the Oscar winning actor Forest Whitaker was stopped and frisked last month by an employee on suspicion of shop-lifting. As Coates noted, “Whitaker had stolen nothing. On the contrary, he’d been robbed.”
Ta-Nehesi Coates

Coates himself was recently called “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States” whose work is defined by a distinct blend of eloquence, authenticity, and nuance.” [See more on Coates here.]

Coates’ column contains this passage, which certainly applies in spades to Cleveland:

“New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years. …
“But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. … It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: ‘Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.’ It is messaging propagated by moral people.”

Forty-five years ago, in the midst of great civil unrest, the Kerner Commission[2] found that “[O]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal.”

The United States used to be described as a melting pot. In recent years, the prevailing construct has become something more akin to a tossed salad. When we consider the ingredients of our violent culture, our love of guns, and our unsolved racial issues, we may actually be more of a witches’ brew.

[1] Professor Inniss is currently a visiting professor of women’s studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.

[2] The National Advisory Commission On Civil Disorders. See summary of report here. For a quick overview, go here.

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