‘Dying of whiteness’: why racism is at the heart of America’s gun inaction

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

Lois Beckett in San Francisco Fri 9 Aug 2019

‘Who gets to carry a gun in public? Who is coded as a patriot?’
 ‘Who gets to carry a gun in public? Who is coded as a patriot?’ Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

Why does the United States refuse to pass new gun control laws? It’s the question that people around the world keep asking.

According to Dr Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, white supremacy is the key to understanding America’s gun debate. In his new book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, Metzl argues that the intensity and polarization of theUSgun 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 like gun control, healthcare expansion or public school funding ends up injuring themselves, as well as hurting people of color, Metzl argues.

The majority of America’s 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 this March, and again this 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.

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You argue that America’s 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 America. 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 in order 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’s impossible to understand America’s gun control debate without talking about whiteness?

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The period after a mass shooting is often very telling.When the shooter is white, the context is the individual narrative – this individual disordered white mind. When the shooter is black or brown, all of a sudden the disorder is culture. The narrative we tell then is about terrorism or gangs.

Then there’s the quiet everyday level. There’s nothing more painful than sitting in a room with family members who have lost loved ones to suicide. I’d talk to people who had lost husbands, wives, kids, parents to gun suicide, and they would come to the interview, often, bringing their guns. And I would ask them: did it change how you think about the gun? And they’d argue it’s never the gun’s fault and they’d need the gun in case an invader would attack them. This narrative about protection against the radicalized invader was so profound. They were almost nervous not bringing their guns.

Gun rights supporters gather at a Guns Across America rally at the Texas state capitol in 2013.
 Gun rights supporters gather at a Guns Across America rally at the Texas state capitol in 2013. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

And itwas very much coded in racial terms. A number of people I talked to in my book basically said, I’m getting this gun because of Ferguson [the city where the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in 2015 sparked sustained public protests led by black residents]. These were people who lived 300 miles from Ferguson, in entirely white areas of rural America. When I tried to pin them down about it, they would say, “This could happen anywhere. I have to protect myself and my property.”

I talked to a number of people in African American communities, and for them, this meaning of guns being like a privilege was completely absent. They had very ambiguous or mixed feelings about weapons, because, for a lot of people I spoke with in St Louis they symbolized, “Carry a gun, get shot by the police.”

Given how important you think white privilege is to understanding gun policy, should people be talking or messaging about the gun control debate differently?

I’m not imagining that MSNBC talking more about “how guns are proof that you’re racist” is going to change this debate. The point I’m making is more a diagnostic one than a prescriptive one. I’m saying that until we understand the racial tensions that underlie the gun debate, we’re going to keep asking ourselves why this issue is so intractable.

When we talk about guns and people end up polarized, it’s not just because we disagree about gun politics, it’s because gun politics symbolizes a far greater series of tensions in this country. When we’re talking about guns, we’re also talking about race.

During a talk at a bookstore in Washington DC, a white nationalist group reportedly interrupted you in protest. What happened?

My dad is a Holocaust survivor and he and my grandparents escaped Nazi Austria. It took them about 10 years to get into this country and they were only allowed because of the bravery of people who stood up and vouched for them. One of those people was in the audience, a man in his 80s who volunteered to be my father’s host. As I was saying this, I look up to the back of the store, and there are nine men and one woman coming in with bullhorns, and chanting. They were saying things like “This land is our land” and “invaders out”. They commandeered the talk for about five or 10 minutes. At first people thought it was a joke. And then they got scared. The bookstore is right next door to Comet Pizza, where the Pizzagate shooting happened. And then people, everyday people, stood up and shouted them down. Then they left. It was very well rehearsed. They had a videographer there.

What connection do you see between white Americans’ daily choices about gun politics and the violent attack we saw in El Paso?

My argument is a lot more centrist than I think people realize

I think we run a risk of conflating all gun owners with mass shooters. I’ve gotten comments on Twitter about people being mentally ill just for wanting to own an AR-15. I don’t see those as productive. Many of the interventions that we’re suggesting, like background checks, are going to have an impact on gun owners. It’s better off if we have a conversation with them. I think that pathologizing all gun owners gets us further away from any kind of solution that might bring people together.

At the same time, part of what I’m tracking in my research is the politics of racial resentment, a particular form of anti-immigration, anti-government, pro-gun politics that’s been represented in America for a long time. These mass shooters, they’re not coming out of nowhere. They’re a very extreme amplification of the kinds of ideologies that are playing out in a much more quotidian way in middle America.

Did you come away from your research concluding that American gun culture is inherently toxic? Or are there other dimensions to gun ownership and gun culture?

I do think there are many positive things about gun culture. My argument is a lot more centrist than I think people realize.

It’s not just about supremacy and oppression. It’s also about history and tradition and generational meanings. I came away from this research very respectful of gun ownership traditions in many parts of the country, and things people were telling me about guns suggesting safety and protection, about the community networks that gun ownership lets people forge. For many people living in rural America, if anything happens to them, they are far away from support systems, police and other help. I think there are plenty of rational aspects to respecting the tradition of gun ownership.

I have a lot of colleagues and interview subjects and people I’m still having conversations with who are pro-second amendment, people who don’t want mass shootings, and don’t want death. There are a lot of people who are in the middle about this on both sides, but because there’s so many actors that benefit from polarization, everyone from Twitter to the NRA, there’s no benefit to compromising.

But I can list plenty of examples where I think gun policies are not about respecting gun traditions, they’re about really pushing the envelope on seeing how far we can get. I’m not saying that people’s guns should be taken away. I don’t agree that there should be guns in bars and college classrooms. I don’t think that people who are 18 should be carrying assault rifles.

Our forever war: how the white male hegemony uses violence to cling to power

By Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian. Mass shootings enforce the oppression built into America’s economic and legal systems and our history

Thu 8 Aug 2019

‘After the El Paso massacre, people are saying out loud that the president is culpable. But he is gasoline on a fire laid long before.’
 ‘After the El Paso massacre, people are saying out loud that the president is culpable. But he is gasoline on a fire laid long before.’ Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

We were never not at war. By we I mean the colonizers of this continent, who waged war first against Native North America’s original occupants and then entered into a state of war to keep kidnapped Africans subjugated in slavery. After the official Indian wars ended, we found other means to keep Native people confined and disempowered. After slavery officially ended, we found other means to keep black people impoverished and disempowered. Those means were forms of war.

We launched a war to steal Mexico’s northern half, a project completed in 1848 with the acquisition of what is now California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona (minus the Gadsden purchase), part of Colorado, and New Mexico. Texas had already been seized by dubious means, in part because its Yankee settlers refused to accept Mexican law banning slavery. Then we treated Latinx people, even those who had been here before “here” was the USA, as invaders.

There’s a long history of massacres in response to slave uprisings and Native resistance, and the police killings of black people and white male killing of Native women might as well be called war by other means. The US began with a declaration that “all men are created equal” that left out all women, and since then its history has too often been devoted to perpetrating inequality. Recent mass shootings driven by racism and misogyny are a more extreme means of enforcing an oppression built into our economic and legal systems, and may be the result of a panic that those systems are not containing others well enough.

“War” might as well describe the domestic violence so epidemic that “on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States”, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, with an average of four domestic violence deaths a day. Of course the majority of perpetrators are men; the majority of victims are women.

We are a country at war, but who that “we” is – in a nation where so many have been so disenfranchised – should be central to the conversation. There are more guns in the US than people, and the rhetoric of gun rights has been used to defend the rights of these killing machines to spread everywhere – classrooms, Walmarts, public places, homes where children have access to them.

And the people most likely to own guns are those who have been the aggressors in these wars: men, particularly white men, who commit almost all the mass shootings in this country. As social media commentators have noted, if it were Islamic or other “other” groups committing multiple massacres there would be no doubt that this was terrorism. And as Jason Stanley notes early in his book How Fascism Works, “The most telling symptom of fascist politics is division. It aims to separate a population into an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’” But these divisions by race, religion, and gender have always structured the United States.

A man prays at a memorial three days after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas.
 A man prays at a memorial three days after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. Photograph: Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters

“I think in many ways the FBI is hamstrung in trying to investigate the white supremacist movement like the old FBI would,” Dave Gomez, a former FBI agent, told the Washington Post. “There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base. It’s a no-win situation for the FBI agent or supervisor.”

Except that the old FBI was reluctant to take on rightwing violence too. When an Obama official warned in 2009 of a coming “resurgence of rightwing extremist activity and associated violence in the United States”, he recalled in 2017, a “political backlash ensued because of an objection to the label ‘rightwing extremism’.” Ultimately “Republican lawmakers demanded then homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano rescind my report”.

In other words, the problem is the people who have always been in power and control. The government that is supposed to be in charge of protecting all of us is a partisan in this war and to some extent always has been. Now the Republican party is openly partisan, openly the enemy of a majority of people in this country that is less than a third white males.

After the El Paso massacre, people are saying out loud that the president is culpable. But he is gasoline on a fire laid long before

We were never not at war, but in recent years the cold civil war has heated up. The white men who expected unquestioned supremacy, by race and by gender, have launched a civil war against the rest of us, not least by allowing a huge number of high-capacity weapons of war to circulate throughout the country and supporting the NRA’s propaganda project to further fortify a set of fears and identifications between freedom, guns, masculinity and white supremacy. The Republican party has in essence declared war against the United States – against the people, the environment, the constitution, the rule of law, against voting rights and free and fair elections. The threats are coming from inside the Capitol.

After the El Paso massacre by a racist with an anti-immigrant manifesto, people are saying out loud that the president is culpable. But he is gasoline on a fire laid long before, an extreme version of old hates and problems. And of the entitlement that always seems like the most noteworthy and least noted aspect of violence: the idea that anyone has the right to to punish, deprive of rights and safety and even kill others. In May, he said, “How do you stop these people?” and complained that the border patrol can’t use weapons, and then chuckled when an audience member called out “shoot them”. This weekend someone shot his version of “them” in El Paso.

We think of armies as organized bodies with clear structures and centers. But the internet has created a guerrilla army of rightwing young white men infected by contagious and toxic ideas. The internet, as it was created by the hubristic white men of Silicon Valley, is an indoctrination, organizing tool, manifesto distribution means and shopping system (the Dayton killer bought his AR-15 style rifle online from Texas). It’s also an amplifier of alienation and extremism. That many of these young men are lonely and miserable and isolated, and that there is no clear border between white supremacists and incel misogynists, two groups linked to mass shootings, speaks to how the internet works.

That Cloudflare has stopped hosting the hate-spreading 8Chan is, like the meaningless gestures GoogleTwitter and Facebook regularly engage in after being implicated in the spread of hate at home and abroad, too little too late. The tech giants, arms dealers in the civil war, are concerned only with whitewashing their own culpability.

Signs and crosses at the makeshift memorial for victims El Paso shooting in El Paso, Texas.
 Signs and crosses at the makeshift memorial for victims El Paso shooting in El Paso, Texas. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

I wonder about how wars end, especially civil wars. How do people attached to their partisanship leave it behind? How do people find a sense of belonging to the whole rather than their divisive part? If slavery was the original sin of the US (along with genocide against Native North Americans), then the failure to finish the American civil war with a decisive victory against the Confederacy that ensured rights for black citizens and abandonment of the rhetoric and symbols of Dixie is how that sin never died.

Six of the nine people massacred in Dayton were black. Black people were the targets in the Charleston church massacre in 2015. We’ve had mass shootings in synagogues and a Sikh temple and many attacks on Muslims. How does the definition of “we” become broader and more inclusive, rather than shrinking down to Christianity and whiteness and maleness? How do you launch a peace? How does love become more powerful than hate? How do we unravel the forces shaping these miserable young white men and reincorporate them into the broader society? How do we de-legitimize the entitlement to violence? What might inoculate lonely young men against the viral contagion of mass shootings that have spread since Columbine like a slow pandemic?

The war is because the future USA will not look like the past USA, in who is here and who has rights and powers

We must remember that this war has stepped up because white men feel threatened in what they consider a zero-sum game: if they don’t have everything they imagine they won’t have enough, a threat whipped up by rightwing media and the Republican party. The Republican party’s decision to become the party of white grievance will be in the long run a losing strategy in an increasingly nonwhite nation. But conservative white Americans are determined to hold on to power, and will use gerrymandering, voting suppression and other tactics to openly defy the ideals of democracy and equality.

Women of color are advancing in power; the president’s recent attacks on representatives Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are red meat for his base, but also a reminder that among the four are the first black woman elected to national office from Massachusetts, the first Muslim women elected to Congress, and the young Latina who beat an old white man.

The threat they pose to the old white Christian male hegemony is real. I think that in the long run the larger, more generous American “we” will win, but that does not make the carnage acceptable or map out how to dilute the divides, or whether the work to do so is going to be carried out entirely by the victims and not the perpetrators. The war is because the future USA will not look like the past USA, in who is here and who has rights and powers. The question is how we survive the transition – or rather how we shape it so that the vulnerable survive and thrive.

Rebecca Solnit is the author of Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions. She is a Guardian US columnist