By Mohammad Mazhari

Gun culture is synonym for white supremacy: researcher

June 17, 2022 - 17:23
‘It’s hard not to connect recent massacres in U.S. legacies of settler colonialism and white supremacy’

TEHRAN – An expert on racism, class politics, and internationalism says that recent mass shootings in the U.S. are connected with U.S. legacies of settler colonialism and white supremacy.

“It’s hard not to connect the recent massacres in Uvalde, TX and Buffalo, NY — not to mention the workplace shooting in Maryland, and several others from the last few months — with the twin legacies of settler colonialism and white supremacy in the United States,” Anthony Ballas tells the Tehran Times.

“Keeping in mind as well the fact that there are more guns in the United States than there are people, and that Americans must wade through the thick air of Second Amendment fetishism on a daily basis, it’s indeed often difficult to see outside of the ideological bubble of gun culture in this country,” notes Ballas, who teaches humanities and social sciences at Northern New Mexico College.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: How do you read the serial shootings that have swept across America? What are the implications of these incidents?

A: It’s hard not to connect the recent massacres in Uvalde, TX, and Buffalo, NY — not to mention the workplace shooting in Maryland, and several others from the last few months — with the twin legacies of settler colonialism and white supremacy in the United States. Keeping in mind as well the fact that there are more guns in the United States than there are people, and that Americans must wade through the thick air of Second Amendment fetishism on a daily basis, it’s indeed often difficult to see outside of the ideological bubble of gun culture in this country.

“Ted Cruz is a racist and everything he says should be considered in the context of his sycophantic allegiances to the NRA and Trump.”Gerald Horne has written and spoken at great length on this topic, and in fact, I interviewed him on this very question recently. For Horne, we can’t disentangle the logic of settler colonialism from gun rights in the United States. Take the vaunted Second Amendment for instance. When it was ratified in the late 18th century, the right to bear arms did not apply to the Indigenous populations or the enslaved Africans in this country. It was reserved for the property-owning planter class and the upper elites who were indeed the ones who drafted the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and so on. We can’t forget this feature of the early republic: the threat of Indigenous and slave rebellion against their white oppressors was very real, and so the class of enslavers took the legal steps requisite — as well as coercive, violent steps — to ensure that weaponry did not get into the hands of these populations, often including many freed Blacks as well as poor, propertyless whites. We often forget this fact.

Equally important is to remember the racist application of the Second Amendment in the 20th and 21st centuries as well. When the Black Panthers exercised their apparent “right” to bear arms for the purpose of community defense against the threat of police brutality in California in the 1960s, laws were passed to bar what is called “open carry” across the state, which means that the Panthers could no longer openly defend their communities with weapons out in the open. It’s safe to say that the Second Amendment didn’t apply to them either.

Then there are the Wounded Knee incidents in both 1890s and 1973 respectively. To call them “incidents” may be an understatement, however, given the fact that they are a part of the same unbroken history of Indigenous liquidation that founded the U.S., and the Western hemisphere itself. The Wounded Knee massacres were two different campaigns against Native Americans by the “militarized identity politics,” as Horne puts it, of white supremacy housed in the federal government. The Trail of Tears and what some Indigenous activists once dubbed the “Trail of Broken Treaties” are both examples of disproportionate legal violence, and real violence, delivered to the Native American population — enforced at the barrel of a gun.

Recall as well cases of police violence enacted against Blacks in the 21st century. In 2016, Philando Castile was gunned down on video and in front of his family at a routine traffic stop. Castile was a licensed and legal gun owner — and he was simply reporting to the cop that he was in possession of a firearm legally, and attempted to show him his license when he shot multiple times. It is one of the most horrifying displays of police violence in recent memory, though it is not alone. We all remember Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and of course the “vigilante” murder of Trayvon Martin, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, and other instances too numerous to count. The late liberation theologian, James Cone compared the modern-day lynchings of Black people in this country to the crucifixion of Jesus, calling the victims of this kind of violence “recrucified Christs,” murdered in the streets, lynched by mobs, specialized in the media, distributed on postcards, photographs, in cinema, and on social media and YouTube as a sort of religious sacrament for the preservation of white supremacy in the United States.

“There are more guns currently in the United States than actual human beings.”This problem has never waned. The revolutionary Black preacher Nat Turner was ritualistically hanged and dismembered after he revolted against his slave owners in 1831 in Virginia. His skull was passed down through the generations of southern white families, like a family heirloom. And similar grotesqueries have occurred throughout the history of the West: Jack Mansong, executed and dismembered in Jamaica in 1781; Emmett Till, beaten and thrown into a river in Mississippi in 1955; the Black veteran Powell Green, beaten, shot, dragged behind a car, and hanged in North Carolina in 1919. We may even say there is an unbroken chain stitching all of these events together and running throughout the history of the United States, inclusive of its prehistory before the 1776 counterrevolution, indeed back into the early 1700s, the 1600s and 1500s. The mass extermination of the Indigenous, for example, at the end of a gun — a liquidation campaign spanning the centuries and the entirety of the Western Hemisphere post-1492. These facts are well-known, though rarely acknowledged in any popular sense.

Gun laws making the acquisition of firearms easy, racist police practices, mass incarceration, the so-called “great replacement theory,” right-wing militia plotting riots, kidnappings, and coups, and, of course, the continuation of U.S. imperialism itself: all of these factors are contemporary iterations of all of the above. To use a concept from Jacques Lacan, we might even think of the coup of January 6, 2021, as a “point de capiton,” a “quilting point” in which all of these factors cohered, stitching together the symbolic universe of right wing ideology: whiteness and white supremacy, libertarian hostility to the state, rugged individualism and free-market fetishism, and the fetishism of gun culture and American history itself — recall how Lauren Boebert, the representative that hails out of my home state of Colorado, tweeted out “today is 1776,” on January 6th, while the “Proud Boys” and “Oath Keepers,” many of whom have now been charged with seditious conspiracy, were attempting to seize the Capitol and stop the certification of the 2020 election. Boebert’s reference to 1776 was not an accident. 1776 is now a symbol of counterrevolution, passing itself off as universal emancipation. But we all know that 1776 and January 6 were far from universal.

In Buffalo, we saw the unambiguous motivations of the white supremacist ethos of 1776 on full display. The shooter posted a manifesto-style screed citing the so-called “great replacement theory,” he had a “black sun” tattoo, similar to those seen on the skin of Ukrainian neo-Nazis as of late. Not to mention the disturbing fact that the whole incident was live-streamed on the web, and the obscene feature that the shooter had written the racial epithet “n-word” on the AR-15 he used to mow down Black customers at a grocery store.

Gun culture is a synonym for white supremacy. And so the laws passed and the violence committed in the name of white supremacy follow therefrom.

Q: Some critics claim that gun laws in the U.S. are the main reason for such massacres, while Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blame societal factors — but not guns — for the wave of mass shootings. Who is telling the truth?

A: First of all, Ted Cruz is a coward and a racist, and so everything he says should be ridiculed and considered in the context of his freakish insipidity, vacuity, and his obsequious, servile, and sycophantic allegiances to the NRA, Trump, and Texas hegemony more generally. I can’t think of a time when Cruz has told any kind of truth or even gotten close, and so it’s difficult to think he would do so now suddenly.

Those who blame society, on both the left and right mind you, are clearly misguided by the materiality of gun culture and the legal structure that supports it. Yes, there is evidence that suggests that the slackening of gun laws is correlated with the wave of mass shootings, which we are indeed witnessing at a pace that is nearly exponential at this point. When an 18-year-old can legally acquire an automatic weapon, like the Uvalde gunman, or indeed when a federal judge can dismiss the charge of illegal acquisition of a firearm which was levied against the then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, then, yes, it is fair to say that the structure of law must be indicted and indeed implicated as part of the ongoing violence we are seeing at the end of the barrel. However, to say that loose gun laws alone are the sole cause for this epidemic of violence, or that simple modification in gun legislation would fix this problem overnight, is certainly misguided as well — there is nothing monolithic about the law or societal factors, and so neither provide simple causal explanations.  

On the right, the typical explanation is mental health or vapid cultural assessments, oftentimes rooted quite explicitly in racist discourse. We often hear rhetoric about the “culture of violence” that exists in the Southside of Chicago, and “black-on-black crime,” and so forth. It is hard to accept these premises, however, when mass shootings at the hands of predominantly lone, white gunmen, as well as the police, saturate the statistics on gun violence in the U.S. to an obscenely disproportionate degree. And I must agree with Slavoj Zizek that violence committed by the state (police forces, military, etc.) is of a totally different order of violence than other forms of violence. Why? Well, violence that is committed by representatives of the law, those tasked and sworn to uphold the law, exposes the violence of the law itself: the fact that the enforcement of law in the U.S. most often means the extermination of people of color is vital to keep in mind. Violence between regular citizens, many of whom are facing extreme economic violence and a manifold other social problems, is vastly different from violence committed in the name of white supremacy, the ideology which undergirds both right-wing extremism and police brutality. Totally different.

If we don’t think that guns are somehow to blame, then we are clearly misguided as well. I already mentioned that there are more guns currently in the United States than actual human beings. If this doesn’t raise some eyebrows, then I’m afraid we’re doomed. What accounts for this ridiculous statistic? The gun lobby, the systematic deregulation of licensure and background checks required for gun purchasing, the political economy of the gun market — it’s a multi-billion dollar industry after all. Mix in some of the factors I addressed in your previous question, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and the “great replacement theory,” and you get a chemical cocktail — a napalm bomb — ready to explode into just this kind of epidemic. It is really no mystery.

There are also those on the left who think that legal reform would have no effect at all, and I think this is equally misguided. This argument lacks any kind of political realism I’m afraid. But, again, none of these are to be considered a monolithic panacea for this epidemic.

With regard to who tells the truth, I don’t think it’s very complicated. The truth doesn’t necessarily need a mouthpiece to express itself with regard to gun culture in the U.S. The truth tells itself on this front. Every American citizen, and, indeed, the entire world bears witness to the violent gun culture of the United States. In 2020, the UN Human Rights Council issued a rather scathing report assessing police brutality and human rights violations in the United States following the murder of George Floyd — and there was a similar report in 2015 if I’m not mistaken, dealing with the detention of immigrants at the U.S. border, which continues to be a serious problem under Biden. What we are really dealing with are so many obfuscations and rituals of concealment with regard to this very simple truth. Ted Cruz, Governor Abbott of Texas, the corpulent, Oliver Hardy-esque Uvalde district chief of police Pete Arrendondo, and countless other officials inside and outside of Texas strategically mask the root causes of the kind of violence we are seeing behind a veil of political rhetoric. It is a self-conscious masquerade passing itself off as political viability, and it is winning I’m afraid.

Q: How do you evaluate the rate of violence in the U.S. over the last decade? Is it normal or has it ramped up dramatically? Can you confirm that the level of tolerance is decreasing?

A: It’s hard to say whether it’s simply ramped up or if the visibility has increased in popular media. I should qualify this to say that “increased visibility” really means an increased awareness for populations who have not experienced this kind of violence systematically throughout the decades, which means mostly white demographics are being exposed more to these things, or, at least, are less and less able to disavow the reality of this violence, which seems to have been the tendency for many decades. Again, if we look back at history, we are indeed looking at the genocide of the indigenous, the violent subjugation of Haiti, and numerous other examples. The Monroe Doctrine in 1823 gave the U.S. a self-justified monopoly on colonial violence, enshrining it in policy, and therefore legitimizing its use of coercive, economic, and ideological violence for the next two centuries.

We are seeing the rate of a certain type of violence perhaps, allowed white youth who have been influenced by white supremacist ideology; Dylann Roof; Payton Gendron; Kyle Rittenhouse; James Holmes; Salvador Ramos. It’s perhaps also hard to consider tolerance decreasing when it really has never existed. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan of intolerance and racial hatred among other things. It’s also nothing new at all; every era has its own version — Reagan, the “Red Scare,” “The South Shall Rise Again,” and so on. Tolerance is probably the wrong word altogether.

Q: How do the American people see the decisions and policies adopted by the authorities? Do they seem rational to the American public?

A: As we might expect, opinions are divided. I’d say it really depends on which American people you are referring to, and which authorities as well. I know that Biden has the lowest approval rating since I think Jimmy Carter. This is telling. Biden, who may have just sleepwalked into World War 3, is generally not viewed as rational, or indeed as competent, by many on the left and right. It is especially telling when Kissinger and Trump (accidentally perhaps) utter rational statements regarding the U.S.’s involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Kissinger, one of humanity's greatest war criminals — who by the looks of it seems to have forgotten to die — expressed concern about nuclear war and American involvement in Ukraine. Trump made similar statements. Now, this is not to say that these two deserve our respect or are to be taken seriously even. What this should illustrate to us is the absurdity of those who are generally deemed to be the rational actors in the United States: the democratic branch of our two-party political system. I think this is false. Rationality doesn’t belong to either branch whatsoever, and history seems to verify this. But it is concerning that a war criminal like Kissinger and a racist neo-fascist like Trump can utter a single rational statement with regard to current global affairs while the Biden administration seems absolutely incapable of rationality at every turn. The Biden administration is about as rational as a “crime-fighting mechanical bull with feathers as legs.” If you are baffled by this example then you understand how baffling the Biden administration really is.

I should note also that there was a rare moment of unconscious rationality expressed recently by George Bush Jr. He essentially acknowledged that he is a war criminal for the War in Iraq in front of a huge audience, who chuckled perhaps a bit uncomfortably at the whole thing. When Trump, Kissinger and G.W. Bush’s unconscious are all uttering somewhat rational statements, we know we have entered dangerous and perhaps unprecedented terrain.

Q: Despite promises by Democrats, it seems that there is no real motive to regulate gun control laws. What are the main causes of this failure?

A: Although I agree that the Democrats, especially since the Trump era (which we are very much still in despite the results of the last election) have been largely ineffectual in many ways. This is not to give Obama a pass, and certainly not to let Clinton off the hook either. The failure to pass signature infrastructure legislation, to pass abortion protections, and the failure or probably unwillingness to keep campaign promises (which is nothing new of course) such as student debt relief… these things are what pockmark Biden’s presidency thus far. These things will be remembered as his contribution to American politics: failure at nearly every level of governance. Not to mention his incompetent and even clownish stature on foreign affairs: recall how his staffers have had to walk back apparent “gaffs” with regard to Russia-Ukraine and China-Taiwan recently. These things really add up. In fact, we might think of these “gaffs” as part of his lack of rationality that I commented on in your previous question; leadership incapable of any sort of rational political realism is very concerning.

However, with all of this said, we also need to keep in mind that when we vociferously critique the Democrats for their incompetence or cowardice we risk disavowing the more pressing enemy of our already limping democracy: the Republican party. This is a line of thought I’m again borrowing from Gerald Horne. I am certainly not pledging allegiance to the Democratic party in any way. Rather, I agree with Horne that when we aim our critical tools at the Democrats for their many failures, we often neglect to analyze certain features of the Republican wing in this country, which has always been a safe haven for white supremacy and neo-fascism. The party is dominated by whiteness; by characters out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. But also by a constituency that generally and uncritically accepts Trump’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of racial supremacy and right-wing nationalism wholeheartedly. If we can’t address this pressing problem, and, as Chomsky has put it as of late, “stop the malignancy” of the Trump movement and the national and international network of neo-fascist populism that his movement and the Republican party are stitched into, we are indeed headed down a very dangerous path, including the path of climate catastrophe — which is, unfortunately, another matter altogether that would require another set of questions and answers to effectively broach. The Supreme Court in this country is too implicated in this political entanglement as well: the abortion ban, Clarence Thomas’ complicity and his wife Gini’s involvement in the coup of January 6, all of these things should be of utmost priority. 

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