In Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix stand-up special, “Sticks & Stones,” the comedian challenges America’s “gun love” culture. Chappelle observes, “I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I don’t see any peaceful way to disarm America’s whites.” I share Chappelle’s perspective.
In fact, as I’ve previously commented, white Americans’ “gun love” flows from two streams of white supremacy — white people’s unlimited access to arms to maintain domination over indigenous and African peoples; and conversely, the denial or restriction of indigenous and African peoples’ access to weaponry.
Incisively, Chappelle poses African-American gun ownership as the solution to America’s culture of gun violence. He argues, “There’s only one thing that’s going to save this country from itself. Same thing that always saves this country from itself, and that is African-Americans. It is incumbent upon us to save our country. And you know what we have to do. This is an election year. We got to be serious. Every able-bodied African-American must register for a legal firearm. That’s the only way they’ll change the law.”
Like Chappelle, I find myself disturbingly conflicted on gun ownership. Sharp restrictions are needed and are appropriate. However, the devil is not only in the details, it’s also in the history. U.S. history strongly suggests that any restrictions on any rights will disproportionately be borne by black people.
Gun legislation reeks of laws that promote and facilitate gun ownership among whites and denies or restricts black and indigenous peoples’ access.
In 1640, the Virginia Colony enacted an ordinance that exempted enslaved Africans from service in the militia. By 1680, the colonial government “prohibited slaves from carrying any club, staff, gun, sword or other weapon, offensive or defensive.” And shortly thereafter, Virginia extended its racial restrictions to “all negroes, mulattoes and Indians whatsoever.” Soon all Southern colonies followed suit. Moreover, after independence, they incorporated similar restrictive laws into their state constitutions.
In the wake of emancipation, the former Confederate states replaced the slave codes with “black codes.” These racist laws continued to bar black people from gun ownership. Mississippi fined African-Americans in possession of guns $10; in Florida and South Carolina, the penalty was a public whipping. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment abolished the black codes and theoretically granted African-Americans equal access to gun ownership. However, with the advent of apartheid in the 1890s, Southern states developed new mechanisms to disarm African-Americans.
Whenever African-Americans have exercised their right to self-defense, the government has responded by restricting gun rights. In 1925, African-American physician Ossian Sweet moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit. When a white mob attacked his home, he and friends defended themselves, killing one person and wounding another in the process. Shortly after murder charges against Sweet and his compatriots were dismissed, Michigan’s Legislature granted county governments control over the issuance of gun licenses.
In 1967, after the formation of the Black Panther Party, the Mulford Act, a bill to eliminate Californians’ rights to openly carry weapons was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
The U.S.’s history of disarming African-Americans and its legacy of race riots, lynchings and ethnic cleansing makes it easy to listen to black gun-rights advocates like Kofi Kenyatta. Co-founder of Detroit’s Black Bottom Gun Club, Kenyatta observes, “I know that there are people who don’t like me just for the color of my skin who are heavily armed, and I can’t in good conscience relinquish my ability to defend myself, my family and my community knowing that law enforcement and even the government doesn’t have the capacity and often times isn’t willing to protect my community.”
Kenyatta has a point. On the other hand, the African-American community is being ravished by gun violence. Black people constitute the largest share of gun homicide victims and are 10 times more often murdered by persons wielding guns than are white Americans. Black males are more than 15 times more likely to be shot in gun assaults than are white males. Death from gunfire is the leading cause of death for black children! And black women are twice as often fatally shot by an intimate partner than are white women.
Yet, a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports Kenyatta’s point. That article revealed that police killing is a leading cause of death for young black men.
Although, the evidence clearly demonstrates that easy access to guns is devastating black communities. Given U.S. history and the current social situation — white nationalists are running amok — Chappelle and Kenyatta are right, black folks must prepare for the next wave of assaults.
Even the question of banning military-grade hardware gets complicated when you consider that white Americans in general are armed to the teeth and white nationalists have stockpiled an array of weaponry for the race war they are fomenting.
Like Chappelle, I oppose the widespread distribution of guns. Moreover, I believe the 2nd Amendment is not only misinterpreted but was designed to effect racial oppression and preserve white supremacy. History tells me that only black people can be counted on to protect black lives, and we will need guns to do it. And should we do that, America will quickly reinterpret the 2nd Amendment.