Conservatives have a special purgatory for uppity black women who dare question America’s founding myths.
New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — her Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” centralized slavery in America’s origin story, a heresy that inspired laws banning her work from classrooms — now lives there. And she’s about to have company.
In her new book, “The Second,” Emory University history professor Carol Anderson takes on an even more sacred cow: guns. She argues that the Second Amendment — which supposedly came about solely as a hedge against tyranny — had at its heart a much less noble concern: Southern states demanded the right to bear arms because they feared rebellions by enslaved Africans.
All that talk about “a well-regulated militia”? Anderson told me in a telephone interview that that was just the cover story. State militias had not performed well either in fighting off the British or in defending against a domestic uprising: Shays’ Rebellion. “What the militia was really good at, however, was putting down slave revolts.”
So the South held America hostage. It refused to join the new nation unless it was guaranteed the right to keep its guns. Not that this was the region’s only demand. Ultimately, the Constitution contained several clauses protecting slavery and slave owners.
It was to be a recurring theme. From the Founders in 1787 to today’s refusal to enact needed voting-rights reform because of so-called bipartisanship, protecting Black people’s humanity has always come in second to other concerns deemed more vital. But as Anderson noted, “When you’re willing to sacrifice Black folks for what you consider to be the larger issue, you end up sacrificing the larger issue as well.”
Meaning that America cannot credibly practice racial discrimination, then tout itself as a beacon of freedom. That’s a hypocrisy with which geopolitical foes have taunted presidents from Kennedy to Biden.
But as Anderson observes, the Second Amendment betrays Black folk not only in its origin but also in its application. Put simply: The right to keep and bear arms does not extend to Black people. If it did, would the NRA — that vigilant defender of gun rights — have kept silent when a John Crawford III or a Tamir Rice, the one a man legally carrying a firearm, the other a boy legally playing with a toy gun, were executed by police?
By its loud silence, the group gave tacit approval of what Anderson calls the “fractured citizenship” of African Americans. “When they were enslaved or free blacks, when they were Jim Crow blacks or when they were post Civil Rights Movement black folks, that did not alter how the right to bear arms, the right to a well-regulated militia and the right to self-defense did not apply to them.”
Yet the same people who keep silent when Black people are deprived of those rights — and their lives — are only too happy to tell us how we all need guns for self-defense. As Anderson noted, when “Black” is perceived as America’s “default threat,” that argument “puts Black folks in the crosshairs.” Indeed, all of us end up enduring daily mass shootings so that some of us can be ready when the hypothetical Black man comes through the hypothetical window.
In “The Second,” Anderson highlights the manifest hypocrisy of the Constitution’s most troublesome amendment. She makes a compelling case that, for all the noble rhetoric, it was created mainly to oppress.
And that it is still working as designed.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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