Two days ago, President Obama gave a speech about guns, gun violence, and gun safety. As a prelude to this speech, Dr. Michael Jeffries, who teaches about race at Wellesley University, wrote in the Atlantic that:
Of course, smart choices and the cultivation of a love ethic are vital to improving our lives, no matter where we live. But the findings are clear and unambiguous: The violence will not cease unless we dismantle American apartheid, mass incarceration, and a labor market with no place for the black and Hispanic working class.
Jeffries argued that this is how Obama must describe the conditions in Chicago. And Obama did…to some extent.
Like Jeffries, I teach about race and racism. However, in teaching students about the power of racism within U.S. society, I push my students to examine the infrastructures that support the racialized person. I ask my students to see the big picture. Basically, as we critique race and identify that “race matters” (to use the title of Cornell West’s book), we try to look slightly beyond race.
The fact is, gun violence is much more than racial conditions as pundits of race in America frame them. For example, Chicago’s murder problem (and the larger national “gun problem” attached to it) is also part of the regionalism that defines the United States as a colonial infrastructure. It is about political binaries that have long plagued the U.S. (North vs. South as much as Black vs. White, for example). It is also about gun violence as often un-locatable until it makes headlines.
To answer Jeffries, gun violence doesn’t just fester in “apartheid” conditions with certain peoples inclined to suffer because of the pathology of violence. Gun violence is also what makes us safe. Whether through the surrogate cop or your own initiative to carry a “Saturday night special” in your purse, gun violence is ubiquitous. It is both good and evil. It is both a tool of the encroacher and those being encroached upon.
Thus, Chicago is too convenient. The photo-op for Obama is too convenient. Instead of looking romantically on Chicago, how about we consider the ways that gun use in Chicago is part of the same fabric as the paranoia in “red states” that make carrying a gun a part of the American right of passage. (A business in Virginia is offering 15% off their goods and services for individuals who “practice their 2nd ammendment right.”) To assume that “violence will not cease unless” a “working class” is freed from “American apartheid” is to assume that all of these stories don’t borrow from similar impulses to create spaces that mark one’s agentive place in a nation-state otherwise celebrated for its gun wielding bad boys named Capone, Jesse James, and Bonnie and Clyde. Gun violence defines the yet to be identified figures who killed JFK. Gun violence makes the Hatfields and McCoys comfortable figures for our prime time television.
Nevertheless, discussions of gun violence and race make gun violence locatable and pathological within the United States. It assumes that we don’t need to talk about the international drug cartels that use and abuse urban areas because the conditions of expecting violence allow drug runners to be comfortable using guns to protect turf. Violence and expectation are hand in glove. Also, if drug running is ‘illegal’, there are many ways that the expectation of violence is patterned in ‘legal’ ways. Gun ranges and gun stores across the U.S. employ many different peoples, many of whom are ex-military members. Quite a few of these former military men (yes, mostly men) hone their military training for a domestic audience. Their work to educate gun owners, like their former work protecting colonized peoples across the world, is geared toward the possible (some would say ‘expected’) violent encounter.
As we think about Chicago “black-on-black” crime as intra-community, we must realize the persistent displacement and mobility that frames the lives of these young Black citizens. We must understand the ways that this displacement is helped by the forces that abuse these urban communities. Working a full time job (to use Jeffries’ and Obama’s idea) won’t necessarily help this displacement.
Maybe Obama should have discussed the ways that Black Americans in Chicago, like many Native Americans in the past and present, battle to find a position to fight politically. Actually, it is no coincidence that gangs are defining Native American communities in extraordinary ways. The violence practiced in Chicago, like the violence of the past and the expected violence by those citizens following their “2nd amendment rights”, is part of the United States facing its colonial demons. It was OK for White patriots to carry their gun (to practice the 2nd amendment) because they could be trusted against Native Americans and in service to slave based economics. Enter an era where brown and black people control life and death…and it becomes an epidemic. It’s a bit ironic. Yet, it’s all the same story, the same fabric, the same song. In their abstract calls for controlling guns, pundits and government officials don’t articulate the very complex ways that guns serve as currency in an economy of displacement…a displacement that is ritualized, commodified, and used to condition and recondition us in our everyday lives.