On the last night of his life, Philando Castile, a Black man, was driving with his girlfriend and her young daughter when a police officer pulled him over in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., in 2016. Castile complied with the cop’s orders and informed him that he was carrying a firearm. Within seconds, the officer shot Castile five times.
His killing seemed primed for a textbook National Rifle Association diatribe — a cop’s lethal violation of a licensed citizen’s Second Amendment rights. Instead, NRA officials mostly stayed quiet.
That uncharacteristic silence did not go unnoticed by Carol Anderson, a professor and chair of African American studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
“Think about how vociferous they’ve been when it comes to issues of gun rights — gun rights for whites, that is,” she told me when I spoke with her. “In the midst of a mass shooting, their response is, ‘We need more guns.’ Think about Ruby Ridge and Waco where [NRA leader] Wayne LaPierre called federal law enforcement ‘jack-booted thugs,’ and the discrepancy between the way the NRA dealt with other issues of guns when they’re held by whites, and then journalists asking, ‘Don’t African Americans have Second Amendment rights?’ As a historian, I wanted to answer that question.”
In her absorbing new book, “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” Anderson finds that “regardless of the legal status of African Americans,” they were consistently vulnerable because they’ve never had a fully recognized right to self-defense, which should be a guarantee of citizenship. In a nation built on white supremacy and white fear, “the Second Amendment isn’t about guns. It’s about anti-Blackness.”
Coupled with white fear, anti-Blackness explains why even after the most horrific mass shootings, gun reform policies stall in Congress, she said.
“That fear of whites being left defenseless means that the trade-off is being vulnerable in church, in grocery stores, in movie theaters, in schools,” she said. “White fear is a powerful motivator in terms of our public policy, and that fear is often predicated on anti-Blackness.”
Only pressure from Black NRA members pushed the usually outspoken organization to address Castile’s killing. It was “a milquetoast non-statement,” Anderson said, about how the Second Amendment is applicable “regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.”
“Situational silence is like situational ethics — it’s only in some circumstances where those rights are upheld and fought for. It’s racially dependent,” she said. “That began to tell me how precariously perched Black people are in the United States, particularly when the Second Amendment is defined as a bedrock for citizenship. That’s that language coming out of the NRA crowd, and that bedrock just crumbles when Black people have guns.”
Even the amendment’s codifying of “a well-regulated militia” was primarily based, Anderson writes, on quelling frequent slave insurrections, not fighting foreign enemies or government tyranny. Whatever biblical justifications white Christians used to recast Black enslavement as predestined, they knew it was inhumane and feared that those they subjugated would seek revenge. Even after Emancipation, several states passed specific laws banning Black people from owning firearms, which kept them vulnerable to white terrorism.
“It is that fear of retribution, that fear of ‘What we have done to them, they will do to us if they get the chance,’” Anderson said. “There was language about how ‘They’re gonna kill all the whites,’ and so much of what we deal with in this modern day is that same kind of framing.”
That’s the framing Republicans used to stoke white fears with that hoary dog whistle of “law and order” at their 2020 convention last summer, in the shadow of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder. It’s also what convinced Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the barefoot Bonnie and Clyde of St. Louis, to stand outside their home last June and brandish firearms at peaceful BLM protesters.
So consuming is that fear, it once compelled the NRA to support a gun restriction. In the 1960s, California was an open-carry state — until the Black Panther Party began exercising that right. As Elaine Brown, a former acting chair of the Panthers, recently recalled, “You want to say white people have the right to bear arms, but as soon as we assume that Second Amendment right . . . all of a sudden we had to have gun control.”
Before Governor Ronald Reagan signed the open-carry repeal into law, Bobby Seale, a Panthers co-founder, called out the legislation’s inherent anti-Blackness: “The American people in general and the Black people in particular must take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the Black people disarmed and powerless.”
With the nation reeling from a spate of mass shootings and President Biden again pushing for common-sense gun reform, “The Second,” available June 1, is as timely as some of Anderson’s best known books. “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” came out six months before Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. “One Person, No Vote,” was published two months before voter suppression tactics in Georgia stopped Stacey Abrams from becoming this nation’s first Black woman governor in 2018. That book also predicted the kinds of concerted attacks on voting rights now fomenting in Republican-led legislatures.
“The Second” adds another dimension to the gun debate and proves that it is stained with the anti-Blackness mindset that disfigures every debate from voting to housing, from education to health care. It also highlights some of the same hard history Republicans want to cancel to maintain chest-thumping American hagiography.
On that July night when Castile died, Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting, asked the officer who killed her boyfriend, “Why did you shoot him, sir?” In “The Second,” Anderson finds the unsparing answer embedded in the white supremacist foundation of this nation.