Tue, Aug 13, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Why whiteness is
at the heart of the US’
gun inaction

The country’s refusal to pass new gun control laws has everything to do with defending racial hierarchy, author Jonathan Metzl says

By Lois Beckett  /  The Guardian, SAN FRANCISCO

Illustration: Yusha

Why does the US refuse to pass new gun control laws? It is the question that people around the world keep asking.

According to Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, white supremacy is the key to understanding the US’ gun debate.

In his new book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, Metzl says that the intensity and polarization of the US gun debate makes much more sense when understood in the context of whiteness and white privilege.

White Americans’ attempt to defend their status in the racial hierarchy by opposing issues such as gun control, healthcare expansion or public-school funding ends up injuring themselves, as well as hurting people of color, Metzl says.

The majority of the US’ gun death victims are white men, and most of them die from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. In all, gun suicide claims the lives of 25,000 Americans each year.

White Americans are “dying for a cause,” he writes, even if their form of death is often “slow, excruciating, and invisible.”

Metzl spoke to the Guardian about his analysis in March, and again last week, following what appeared to be a white nationalist terror attack on Latino families doing back-to-school shopping at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas that left 22 people dead.

The conversations have been condensed and edited.

You argue that the US’ debate over gun control laws and gun violence makes a lot more sense if you actually understand it as a debate over race and whiteness in the US. Why is that?

In my research I look at the history and the social meanings of how guns came to be these particularly charged social symbols. So many aspects of American gun culture are really entwined with whiteness and white privilege.

Carrying a gun in public has been coded as a white privilege. Advertisers have literally used words like “restoring your manly privilege” as a way of selling assault weapons to white men.

In colonial America, landowners could carry guns, and they bestowed that right on to poor whites to quell uprisings from “Negroes” and Indians.

John Brown’s raid was about weapons. Scholars have written about how the Ku Klux Klan was aimed at disarming African Americans.

When African Americans started to carry guns in public — think about Malcolm X during the civil rights era — all of a sudden, the second amendment didn’t apply in many white Americans’ minds.

When Huey Newton and the Black Panthers tried to arm themselves, everyone suddenly said: “We need gun control.”

When states like Missouri changed their laws to allow open carry of firearms, there were parades of white Americans who would carry big long guns through congested areas of downtown St Louis, who would go into places like Walmart and burrito restaurants carrying their guns, and they were coded as patriots.

At the same time, there were all the stories about African American gun owners who would go to Walmart and get tackled and shot.

Who gets to carry a gun in public? Who is coded as a patriot? Who is coded as a threat, or a terrorist or a gangster?

What it means to carry a gun or own a gun or buy a gun — those questions are not neutral. We have 200 years of history, or more, defining that in very racial terms.

What moments in the past few years have demonstrated to you most clearly that it is impossible to understand the US’ gun control debate without talking about whiteness?

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