A dark look at the unsettling connection between the Second Amendment, America’s gun culture, race, slavery, and the fear of Black retribution.
Beginning with this podcast and over the next few days, WhoWhatWhy will focus on guns, what should be done about them, and how the US approach to guns and gun violence differs greatly from that of its peer nations.
Guns and race have shaped the news this week. In this episode of the WhoWhatWhy podcast, I talk with Emory University professor Carol Anderson, author of the new book The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, to explore the absolute connection between race, the original sin of slavery, and America’s gun culture.
As mass shootings and gun violence continue to plague the nation, Anderson delves into the dark history of the Second Amendment and its foundation in anti-Blackness.
Anderson reveals how African Americans were historically depicted as inherently violent, criminal, and vicious, leading to the implementation of laws that restricted their access to guns and ammunition.
She further discusses the contentious debate between James Madison and the anti-Federalists during the ratification of the Constitution, highlighting the fear of Black retribution and the belief that white control was necessary to maintain order.
When examining the role of the Second Amendment in America’s gun culture, Anderson discusses the crucial questions and offers invaluable insights into the complex relationship between race, guns, and the country’s ongoing struggle to address gun violence.
It’s a story of the hidden history behind the Second Amendment, its lasting impact on America today, and a search for an answer to the never-resolved question as to why we can’t ever seem to do anything about guns in America.
Full Text Transcript:
(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Whether it’s the shooting of a young boy who knocks at a strange door or after every mass shooting, we ask ourselves, why does this keep happening? Sure, shootings, even sometimes mass shootings, happen in other nations, but nowhere with the frequency and the force that we’ve seen here in America. And after each shooting, we always come back to the same issues of guns, the NRA, the Second Amendment, the intent of our Founding Fathers, and the meaning of a well-regulated militia.
And even amid all the violence, we keep making the purchase and carrying and use of even the most dangerous firearms easier and easier, not just in Texas and Oklahoma, but even in New York. And after each shooting, when the victims are buried and the editorials written, and we ask ourselves again, why? Does it ever occur to us that there is something that we’re missing in the cultural equation? Our gun culture is not just the byproduct of John Ford Westerns and the need for security or a respect for some strange legal notion of originalism. Maybe, just maybe, like so much else that is troubling America today, race and the original sin of slavery lies at the deep inner core of our need for guns.
This is the issue raised by my guest, Emory University Professor Carol Anderson. She breaks it down in her new book, The Second. Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University. She is the author of the previous books, One Person, No Vote, White Rage, Bourgeois Radicals, and Eyes Off the Prize. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow for Constitutional Studies. And it is my pleasure to welcome Carol Anderson back to this podcast to talk about The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. Carol, thanks for joining me here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Professor Carol Anderson: Thank you so much for having me, Jeff. And that intro was pitch perfect, because that’s the question, why do we keep doing this? Why can’t we solve this? And we haven’t been willing as a nation to answer that question, even to ask that question appropriately.
Jeff: And one of the things that you get to that really is the core of trying to get into this is looking at the Second Amendment not as some abstract notion, but as you do in the book, looking at its real history, how it came to be, why, and really a pretty dark story that goes along with it.
Professor Anderson: It is bone-chilling at its core because at the root of the Second Amendment is anti-blackness. It is the desire to contain and control the rights of African Americans and to protect the white community from Black people. And I go all the way back to the 17th century, looking at the laws, looking at slavery votes, looking at the letters, looking at the ways that the community talked about African Americans. And it was in this language of they’re inherently violent, they’re inherently criminal, they’re inherently vicious. We must have protection. And so you see the laws banning not only the enslaved, but free Blacks from being able to access guns and ammunition.
Jeff: And talk about how this played out at the constitutional convention. You talk a lot about the debate that went on between Madison and the Anti-Federalists. And if you read between the lines of that, it becomes clearer the issues that you’re raising.
Professor Anderson: Yes. And so as the ratification for the constitution was moving from state to state, when it hit Virginia, Patrick Henry, Mr. Give me liberty or give me death, and George Mason, who was also a major slave owner, were adamant that because Madison had put control of the militia under the federal government, that the militia would not be there to protect them from a slave revolt. And what that means is that we’ve got this national aura of the militia as these stalwart folks who fended off the British and fought for the freedom of the United States, the independence of the United States against the British. But in truth, that militia was absolutely unreliable.
George Washington could not count on them showing up when they were supposed to. He could not count on them fighting when they were supposed to, because sometimes they show up, sometimes they wouldn’t, sometimes they take off running, sometimes they would fight. So what Madison did was to put the control of the militia under the feds in order to begin to regulate, in order to get some coherence [and] consistency in the training of the militia, in the expectations of the militia.
Well, Patrick Henry and George Mason looked at that and said, “You know, when you put it under the federal government, what that means is that those folks from Massachusetts and those folks from Pennsylvania, we can’t trust them to send the militia down to protect us when the slaves revolt. We will be left defenseless.” And so they were threatening to scuttle the constitution unless they got that protection from the militia, unless they got that protection that they would be able to have control over that militia.
Jeff: Take that to the next stage, and why they felt they needed that protection. What they were afraid of.
Professor Anderson: And so what they were afraid of is that there had been a series of slave revolts. One of the big ones was [the] Stono [Rebellion] in South Carolina. And they were just absolutely petrified that these folk that they had enslaved, that they had chained up, that they had extracted their labor from, that they had brutalized, would seek retribution, seek revenge. That they would kill all of the white people in town. That they would just slaughter whites en masse as a form of revenge because Black people were supposedly inherently violent, inherently criminal, and it was going to take white control in order to keep Black folks in place, in order to keep Black folks contained, in order to keep Black folks docile.
And so as they’re threatening to destroy the United States of America by scuttling the constitution, James Madison is absolutely afraid that this would hurl the US back to the unworkable Articles of Confederation, that the power of the central government would be so weakened that the US would actually dissolve. And he had worked so hard to craft this constitution that would make the US stronger, able to stand up to the machinations of the British and of the French and of the Spanish.
And so the first thing he did, basically, in that first Congress was to begin crafting a bill of rights. And so when you think about the bill of rights, you think about freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press, the right not to be illegally searched and seized, the right to a fair trial, the right not to have cruel and unusual punishment. The right to a well-regulated militia? That thing stands out like a sore thumb, and it stands out like a sore thumb because that was the bribe to the South, to not rise up and have another constitutional convention saying, “Here, you can control the militia. The right to a well-regulated militia for the security of a free state.” That was the piece right there that was like, “Okay, we’ve got it. We’re fine.”
And then you see the next layer coming on, which is the 1790 Naturalization Act that defines which immigrants can be considered American citizens. And by the time they were done, it was you had to be white in order to be an American citizen. Then you get the 1792 Uniform Militia Act, which says that every able-bodied white male between the ages of 18 and 45 has to join the militia and has to have a gun. So you see this linkage of American citizenship with whiteness, with gun ownership.
Jeff: It also comes back to this argument that has gone on for so long with respect to the Second Amendment about whether the right to bear arms was an individual right or really focused on this issue of militias.
Professor Anderson: And it was really focused in on militias. And so that formulation of an individual right to bear arms is actually a really recent phenomenon. So for the folks who are originalists, this is a really recent phenomenon that you see popping up in the 2008 Heller decision, and the 2010 McDonald decision. Where the Supreme Court pulled on some myth histories to craft this individual right to bear arms. That right to bear arms was tied to the militia, and that militia was tied to the control of Black people, and underneath that is the anti-blackness coursing through the society.
Jeff: And talk about the way that filters down to today, the way in which those elements in the DNA of the Second Amendment, if you will, are still so much a part of what we’re missing in the debate about it today.
Professor Anderson: And so I looked at, when I moved to the more contemporary years, I looked at stand-your-ground laws, I looked at open carry laws, and I looked at the individual so-called right to bear arms. Do African Americans have the right to stand their ground? Do they have the right to self-defense? Do African Americans have the right to bear arms? Do African Americans have the right to open carry? And when I looked at all of these, there were these things that just kept popping up, that showed this massive racial disparity.
The book actually began with the killing of Philando Castile, who was a Black man in Minnesota who had been pulled over by the police and the police officer asked to see his ID. Philando Castile, following NRA guidelines, alerts the officer that he has a license to carry weapon with him, but he is reaching for his ID as the officer has asked. The officer shot Philando Castile like five times, not for brandishing a weapon, but for merely having one. And the officer said, “I was afraid. I was in fear of my life.”
In this killing, the NRA goes virtually silent. So a man who has a license to carry weapon is gunned down by the police for simply having a license to carry weapon. This should be just vintage NRA. Instead the NRA is like, “Well, we believe everybody has the right to bear arms.” So this is the NRA that was calling federal officials “jack booted government thugs” for Waco and for Ruby Ridge. But now it’s like, “meh,” and I went, “Wow.” And pundits were saying, “Well, don’t Black people have Second Amendment rights?”
And I thought that is a great question. And that’s what’s launched this book, me hunting and finding out that no, it is built into the Second Amendment. And we see this as well with the right to self-defense. The stand-your-ground laws are so unequally applied, so that if somebody white shoots somebody Black, they’re 10 times more likely to walk under justifiable homicide under stand-your-ground, than somebody Black shooting somebody white.
And the reason for that is that built into stand-your-ground laws is the language. If you perceive a threat, wherever you have a right to be, given that Black is the default threat in American society, that perception of threat becomes palpable. It becomes tangible. It becomes, “I was afraid for my life. I was in fear. I had to defend myself.”
Jeff: Yes. And that language, that self-defense language was part of the recent Supreme Court decision with respect to striking down New York’s gun registration laws.
Professor Anderson: Exactly. When you read through that Bruen decision, they really craft a dystopia there. Where you see the language, if you’re walking down the street and you can be afraid for your life, you could be raped, you could be robbed, you could be murdered. And I had the image of the film Escape from New York, right? And then I also have the image of, so you have the right to defend yourself, of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish.
So you get this kind of sense of these urban areas of being so violent, of being so dangerous, that you have to have a gun, without recognizing that the number of guns in American society has not made us safe. In fact, it has made us super vulnerable, because that was one of the other questions I was asking here. Because that is the language, that guns make us safe.
We have over 400 million guns in the United States, and yet we are not safe in our grocery stores, we are not safe in our churches, we are not safe in our schools. We are not safe in our universities. We are not safe in our amusement parks. We are not safe at concerts. We are not safe in movie theaters. So I kept asking myself, “What could be so powerful that we are willing to risk our safety in just doing everyday things?” And I kept coming back to the power of anti-blackness in American society. The power of being fearful of Black people, the power of saying they are inherently criminal, inherently dangerous, and we must have protection against them.
Jeff: How does this meet up with the western gun culture of America, and where do these two things intersect, do you think?
Professor Anderson: That is a great question. I think it intersects in the language of, you are out here by yourself, and so you have to get the protection that the authorities will not provide. You are the law unto yourself. And that is so much in the self-defense language. You can’t count on the cops showing up. That language is even in the Supreme Court Bruen decision. The police cannot protect the 20 million people who are there in New York. And so that sense of, how do you protect yourself from this omnipresent, ever-present threat? You’ve got to do it yourself.
Jeff: Talk about the way the language of this has worked itself into our debate about guns today. Because most of this is not spoken out loud even when it’s clearly there.
Professor Anderson: Yet it becomes really very esoteric in some ways, it gets tied to rights without understanding whose rights. It gets into this debate between is this a right to a well-regulated militia or is this an individual right to bear arms? And what I’m saying is that we’re not asking the right question. The question is, the power of anti-blackness in terms of driving these gun sales.
So, one of the things, for instance, with Obama’s election, gun sales skyrocketed. With the election in 2020, there is so much in the right-wing discussion about “I’ve got my Second Amendment rights. We’re going to use our Second Amendment rights to take back our government,” because Black people have the audacity as citizens to vote and not vote for an avowed white supremacist.
And the response was, “I’m going to use my Second Amendment rights,” so you saw the terror being heaped on election officials, being heaped on volunteer poll workers. And you saw that anger, that determination to take our government back in the insurrection when they invaded the Capitol, and were hunting for Mike Pence to hang him and hunting for Nancy Pelosi to kill her.
Jeff: How do we begin to address this then, do you think? How do we at least have the conversation?
Professor Anderson: We have to acknowledge how we got here. And so, to me, this is also part of the massive backlash that we’re seeing in state after state after state in refusing to teach real American history, in refusing to deal with the role of race in American society and the role of racism in building, in shaping American society. So until we deal with that, it’s really hard to have this conversation.
So you get instead the kind of, again, sanitized our great wonderful Founding Fathers who were absolutely like saints, who had no blemishes, no warts, no biases, [who] crafted this immaculate constitution. And that was foundational for the society that we have where it’s treating the US as if it came out perfectly, like Athena out of Zeus’s head, instead of a nation where there was massive turmoil, massive debates, and underlying that was the role of slavery. That’s one of the things that I lay out in The Second was the way that slavery worked its way into the Constitution significantly as payoffs, as bribes to the South to join this United States of America so that the nation could be strong.
So we get the three-fifths clause. We get the 20 additional years on the Atlantic slave trade. We get the Fugitive Slave Clause, and we get the Second Amendment. When we understand that, then we’re having a very different conversation. Part of what we must do as a nation is acknowledge our history, acknowledge the impact that this history has had on us, and then begin to dismantle the role of anti-blackness in our policies, in our interactions.
Jeff: Professor Carol Anderson, her book is The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. Carol, it is always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Professor Anderson: Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.