Honoring Black History Means Addressing Gun Violence
By Kelly Sampson, Brady Senior Counsel and Director of Racial Justice
Fifty years since the first observation of Black History Month at Kent State University, what does its observance mean today? At its worst, Black History Month lets our country treat Black history like an artifact, separate from “regular” American life. At its best, Black History Month makes us face that Black history, with all its beauty and pain, is American history. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We can’t truly recognize Dr. King, and other icons, without also recognizing the discrimination, segregation, and racism that shaped them. We can’t recognize Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, and Myrlie Evers without recognizing how racism and gun violence shaped their lives and took their husbands. We can’t truly honor these legacies without acknowledging that racism operates today.
In short, we can’t acknowledge Black History without talking about gun homicide’s toll on Black Americans and how racism, past and present, has created this crisis.
Black people are 10 times more likely to die from gun homicide as white people. Black youth fare even worse; they are fourteen times more likely than their white counterparts to die from gun homicide. On the whole, gun violence decreases Black Americans’ average life expectancy by about four years.
Gun violence’s disparate toll on Black Americans, which often goes unreported, is just as tragic as the mass shootings that are subject to media coverage and public attention. Black people aren’t super- or subhuman. It’s just as traumatizing for black teens to bury their classmates as it is for white teens. It’s just as unacceptable for MLK Boulevard to become a battlefield as it is for Main Street. It’s just as disturbing to confront bulletproof glass at the corner store as at the boutique.
We need this to end, but first, we have to understand the problem. We cannot discuss gun homicide without also discussing segregation, disinvestment, indifference, and trauma.
It’s neither natural nor inevitable for gun homicide to concentrate in Black communities, and concentrated gun violence doesn’t happen by nature, but by design. According to researchers with the Vera Institute for Justice, long after slavery ended, de-industrialization and discriminatory housing policies “pushed large numbers of black people into poverty, perpetuating economic inequalities between white and black people.” Douglas Massey, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, found that the so-called “ghetto” or “hood” is a result of white Americans’ deliberate policy choices to isolate black Americans and “marginalize them socially, economically, and politically.” As a result, “many metropolitan areas remain just as segregated as they were in 1968.” And, these are the same cities that bear disproportionate gun homicide.
It’s therefore unsurprising that gun violence concentrates and perpetuates. As Danielle Sered of the Vera Institute found, “[r]esearch shows that some people who are victimized and do not sufficiently recover from the experience are more likely to commit violence themselves.” In short, “hurt people, hurt people.” Compounding this, persistent gun violence can suppress economic development, damage mental health, destroy families, and rip apart neighborhoods. Gun violence traumatizes entire communities, suffering that our country then stigmatizes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “To yell, ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”
Yelling “black-on-black” crime not only misses this point entirely, but it also ignores how continued hostility makes Black people vulnerable wherever we go. We can leave a neighborhood, but we can’t leave our skin.
We see this clearly in police-involved shootings. When it comes to police violence the United States is an outlier. Scholar Franklin Zimring, for example, found that “American police kill not only more often than other developed world police but at a vastly higher rate than any nation” and suggested this is due to more guns in the population.
Even so, police are more likely to believe an unarmed Black or Latinx person has a gun than a White person. As a result, police are 2.5 times more likely to kill Black Americans than white Americans. In 2012 Black people were 13% of the US population, but 31% of those killed by police — data that may not account for unreported cases.
It’s not a new phenomenon, but in the last decade, infamous police shootings like those that killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, and Atatiana Jefferson have only highlighted these centuries-old tensions. Our gun-saturated country often forces officers to make split-second decisions; our race-saturated history often leaves Black Americans casualties of those decisions.
For these reasons, life-saving gun reform is an essential aspect of racial justice.
Definitions differ, but the term “racial justice” goes beyond mere non-discrimination to include affirmative and deliberate measures that achieve and preserve equity.
A solution favored by the majority of Black Americans, is gun violence prevention, a big tent that includes: legislation, public health campaigns, litigation, police reform, and community-based intervention programs. Efforts to prevent gun violence, when combined with efforts to address discrimination, segregation, and oppression, are a powerful step towards justice. But in order to get there, we will have to accept that gun violence’s disproportionate toll on Black Americans is enmeshed with discrimination, segregation, and racism — present and past. We know this; an armed vigilante executed Trayvon Martin because he dared to exist in suburban Florida; a white supremacist ambushed nine Black congregants at a Mother Emanuel bible study, because they dared to worship in a historically black space; a suburban Michigan man killed Renisha McBride because she dared to seek help. These are not isolated incidents. As gun homicide and racism intertwine; Black skin, bias, and guns don’t mix.
Since Black history is American history, we all own this. Like historian and author Jemar Tisby observed, American history shows that “racism never goes away; it just adapts.” No matter where you live, or what color you are, you cannot wash your hands of this injustice. You can’t claim the joy without claiming the pain and working to end it.
Kelly Sampson is the Constitutional Litigation Counsel at Brady Legal, where she leads Brady’s Legal Alliance and Racial Justice efforts.