Sunday, 21 June 2015

Guns and Racists

One immediate result of the Charleston massacre has been the welcome eclipse of Rachel Dolezal. Race in America has reverted from a narcissistic preference to implacable destiny, with much "centuries in the making" chin-stroking by the commentariat. According to Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, "Race and guns are the birth defects of the American republic, their distorting presence visible in the US constitution itself." This is ahistorical nonsense. While the USA was certainly founded as a racist state, and the right to bear arms was defined as a constitutional right, contemporary problems with race relations and guns have little to do with these "birth defects". The shootings in Charleston this week, like the police execution of Walter Scott in April, cannot be sourced to the 1780s or the 1860s. Though we do not make the world anew every day - so the past certainly continues to influence the present - it is nothing more than Burkean nostalgia to imagine that the present is inescapably determined by the past, that current social failures are the result of ineradicable policy blunders made centuries ago. Progressives who bemoan the tyranny of the US constitution are humming a conservative tune.

The US attitude to guns was broadly similar to that of other developed nations during the early twentieth century, with largely unfettered ownership tolerated but actual use dwindling as a consequence of the secular move of the population from the countryside to towns and cities. The one exception, enacted at state level, was to restrict the rights of blacks as part of the Jim Crow system. To put this in context, the UK only introduced limitations on the sale of firearms in 1903, with a focus on excluding minors and the insane. Controls were extended after WW1, in part due to unease over the mass-arming of the working class during the war and the worrying example of Bolshevik Russia, and gradually tightened over subsequent years. In contrast, the US National Firearms Act of 1934 was triggered by public anxiety over criminal activity during the prohibition era. Despite the high profile of gangsters, gun-ownership was in slow decline in America throughout the century, just as it was elsewhere. The popularity of gun clubs and the fetishisation of hunting were the products of urban modernity, not the persistence of ancient customs, with the legal indulgence of "sporting" guns and the distaste for cheap "Saturday night specials" reflecting a class and race bias.

The new salience of gun ownership as a political issue in America, and specifically as something admirable and emblematic of "liberty", was a response to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s and the subsequent reframing of white fears about the advance of blacks as a more generalised anxiety about social breakdown. The psychopathy and gang-wars of White Heat and Little Caesar had given way to the muggings, rapes and drug-fuelled craziness of Dirty Harry and Death Wish. This increased antagonism was fuelled by both white resentment and black assertiveness, but it also reflected underlying changes in the economy and demography, similar to those happening in other developed countries over the course of the 60s and 70s. This was reflected in an across the board increase in violence - criminal, domestic and political - and specifically an increase in deaths due to assault in the US. However, it is worth emphasising that levels of gun ownership in America continued to slowly fall.

The rapid escalation in assault deaths that had started in the early 60s ran out of steam in the late 70s, during the early years of the Carter administration, when ownership rates were still falling. It was only in the Reagan years (so more Escape from New York and Fort Apache The Bronx) that the decline in gun ownership was arrested, and then only temporarily. The downward trend picked up again in the 90s during the Clinton presidency, while the rate of assault deaths also continued to fall. During the Bush II years, rates of gun-ownership flatlined, despite the war on terror and the focus on homeland security. The long-term trend is clear, with the percentage of US homes owning guns falling from 50% in 1977 to 31% in 2014. Meanwhile assault deaths have continued to fall, though there remains some way to go before the US is line with other developed nations. The data suggest two things: more guns in society means more violent deaths, but the level of carnage is amplified by social tensions. In other words - and contrary to simplistic liberal propaganda - the mere presence of guns does not solely determine the level of mayhem, even if there is a broad correlation between the prevalence of guns and rates of homicide.

What is also clear from the US data is that gun fatalities tend to be greater in areas with larger (and longer-established) black populations. Leaving aside atypical big cities such as LA and New York, the most deadly areas of the USA are the core southern states: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Some on the right claim that this is because of black-on-black crime, with the implication being that blacks are innately more murderous, but this is to ignore two facts: first, that most murderers know their victims, so murders tend to be intra-racial in societies where integration is weak; and second, that murder rates correlate with socio-economic class - the poor commit more murders than the rich, and they tend to murder other poor people. We also know that blacks are far less likely to own guns than whites in the US, though this rarely leads right-wingers to advocate that blacks acquire more guns in self-defence.

The recent spate of killings of unarmed black men by white policemen (a "spate" that may just be the more comprehensive publicising of a mundane fact) might suggest a white fear of violent blacks, but what you see is white over-reaction and a callous disregard for black lives. The murder rate is a social pathology, which in the US is amplified by the availability of weapons. Gun ownership is a reflection of racial tension, but largely since the 1960s, and its slow decline is a sign of increasing integration and dwindling prejudice. Though the conservative reaction of the 70s and 80s slowed this decline, the gun-lobby is clearly fighting a rearguard action in the face of steady social change: a sophisticated black president, a scion of the house of Bush who is Catholic and has a Hispanic wife. The root cause of America's "gun problem" is the social division of the races, but this is a contemporary reality, not an ancient legacy, and one that looks increasingly at odds with the wider public mood. Gun rights will, like smoking in bars and restaurants, eventually give way and people will then look back and wonder how they could have put up with such legalised insanity.

The reluctance to acknowledge the racial background to the growth in homicides in the 60s and 70s and the related valorisation of gun ownership in the 80s led to a number of attempts at historical legitimation for gun rights, as part of the wider conservative turn, from "faith" in the Founding Fathers' wisdom to the extolling of the frontier spirit as a characteristic of American exceptionalism. These appeals to history ignored the fact that the Second Amendment was concerned with the maintenance of a militia, a collective right, not the personal use of firearms, and that very few Americans in history had ever experienced "the frontier", let alone been on the receiving end of aboriginal hostility. What is strikingly evident to most non-Americans (and many frustrated Americans too) is the absurdity of the justifications put forward for lax gun control. It's obvious, from the smirking demeanour of gun-lobbyists and the irrationality of their case ("the pastor should have allowed his parishoners to carry concealed weapons"), that these justifications are euphemistic and insincere.

Freedland's article is a good example of the way that these two issues - race and gun violence - are treated as parallel failings, with their inter-relationship limited to mere coincidence: "the damage guns and racism inflict both separately and when they collide". This is an approach common to liberals and the more polite conservatives. In fact, America's gun laws, at both state and federal level, have always been a discourse about the competing rights of racial minorities and the white majority, from the pre-Civil War period up to today. Guns are an emblematic form of property. Like cars, the possession of a gun is not merely a statement of power and privilege, it also signals assertive membership of civic society, which is why acquiring guns was a performative tactic of black activists during the 60s, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

A black man openly carrying a gun was seen as an affront by whites in exactly the same way as having a white woman on your arm was (the woman being another species of property). The reaction against gun control that became hegemonic during the Reagan years was part of a wider movement of symbolic white, middle-class empowerment; with the restoration of guns, as emblems of power and possession, acting as a proxy for the "taking back" of the country from its presumed domestic and foreign enemies. But though this conservative turn bellowed about national strength and religious certainty, it was marked by a particularly tearful strain of patriotism, galloping paranoia (perversely recuperating the 60s leftist fear of the state, famously parodied by The Illuminatus! Trilogy), and a belief that violence was the default solution to most problems. The logical conclusion was the apotheosis of the heroic killer - with his superior whiteman's gun, like a cross between Leatherstocking and Jesus Christ - seen most recently in American Sniper.

Racism in America is a modern phenomenon arising from socio-economic conflicts and their manifestation in political and institutional corruption. It's about contemporary wants and needs, not tradition. The belief that the value of white homes would decline once blacks moved into a hitherto exclusive area ("there goes the neighborhood") was not merely an assumption that a racially-mixed population would make a property less attractive to prospective buyers, but a belief that blacks choosing such homes intrinsically devalued them: if you like this, then I don't. "White flight" is a modern condition (or at least a condition of the second-half of the twentieth century), not the baleful legacy of slavery, which is why it wasn't limited to the USA. Segregation depends not on physical separation, which is always doomed to fail in a world where geography is dictated by wealth rather than race, but on not wanting the same things. Ultimately, those wants are a product of economic power and cultural capital, which is why the gun re-emerged as a consumer totem and status identifier during the 70s.

The southern states of the US could only have maintained segregation by crippling their economy in the 50s and 60s, much as they had done under slavery in the early nineteenth century. Wisely, they accepted the economic logic, which eventually led to the revival of the "New South" as part of the wider demographic growth of the "Sun Belt". This change in the economy naturally produced social dislocations, including the undermining of established groups and greater class and geographical mobility. In the South, this saw a growing black middle class leapfrog an increasingly "left behind" section of the white working class and lower-middle class. This in turn produced a resistance at the ideological level, hence the edgy (and often overtly racist) nostalgia for all things antebellum and the revived sentimentality of the "Lost Cause". Like all nostalgia, this is driven by regret for a past that never actually existed and must therefore be retrospectively created, like a Civil War battle re-enactment.

There can be nothing more obviously and deliberately insulting than flying the Confederate flag beside South Carolina's statehouse, but it is not widely appreciated that this is an affectation that only dates from 1961, a year that happened to be the centenary of the declaration of the Confederacy. This was not a time-hallowed tradition but the invention of a relic for contemporary political purposes, namely the defiance of equal civil rights for blacks. It has no more integrity than Rachel Dolezal's "transracial" hair or Dylann Roof's conceit in styling himself the "last Rhodesian". Contrary to the belief of liberal apologists like Jonathan Freedland, Roof's crimes are a modern manifestation of contemporary racism, fuelled by Internet crazies and conniving right-wing media, not some chronic symptom of an unalterable past.

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