“Black communities have differentiated individual firearm ownership from structured self-defense organizations.”
Since Trump took office, Black citizens have been increasingly arming themselves, a practice rooted in the long Black radical tradition of armed self-defense and articulated in Robert F. Williams’s Negroes With Guns. In a recent interview with Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argued that the Second Amendment “needs to be abolished.” Doing so, however, would disarm not only right-wing vigilantes, as she wants to do, but also Black citizens.
In her new book, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, Dunbar-Ortiz convincingly argues that the “gun culture” of the United States is rooted in the nation’s history as an expansionist, capitalist, settler colonial, white supremacist empire. Given that white colonizers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were living on stolen land and living off stolen labor, these colonizers had to defend their plunder from the Indigenous and enslaved populations who were resisting their dispossession and exploitation.
Seen in this context, Dunbar-Ortiz concludes, the Second Amendment was evidently designed to substantiate the right and the duty of white male citizens to arm themselves against the colonized. Anyone who understands the racial and colonial history of the Amerikan Empire will readily agree with Dunbar-Ortiz’s historical analysis.
“Dunbar-Ortiz relegates the history of Black armed self-defense to the dustbin of history.”
Dunbar-Ortiz also argues, however, that the Second Amendment needs to be abolished because it creates a veneer of legitimacy for Amerika’s militaristic culture, which is itself part of the violent, racist legacy of European settler colonialism in North America. Because white men own a disproportionate number of guns and commit a disproportionate amount of mass shootings, often against the racialized victims of Amerika’s continued colonial project, Dunbar-Ortiz advocates repealing the Second Amendment to strip them of the legal protections and Constitutional justifications that validate these mass shootings.
I agree that we should construct strategies to end mass shootings and white racial domestic terrorism, but by framing the discussion in this way, Dunbar-Ortiz relegates the history of Black armed self-defense to the dustbin of history. By ignoring this aspect of the Black Radical Tradition, she concedes to the NRA what it wants: a monopoly on public discourse about firearms.
While the NRA’s emphasis on gun ownership for self-defense goes back only to 1977, the tradition of Black armed self-defense goes back to at least Robert F. Williams’s 1962 book Negroes With Guns. As a Vietnam veteran and president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, Williams organized a gun club to help the Black citizens of Monroe defend themselves during a surge of racist violence in the late-1950s. Before they had guns, the KKK and the police would routinely harass, bully, and attack Black people, often just for fun. In one instance, the police witnessed whites shooting at Black people eating lunch in a park and did nothing.
“Robert F. Williams organized a gun club to help the Black citizens of Monroe defend themselves during a surge of racist violence in the late-1950s.”
After arming themselves, Williams noticed a change in police behavior: instead of letting the white racists commit violence with impunity, the police began de-escalating and even stopping white violence against Blacks.
Why? Williams says it is because “racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones.” “When because of our self-defense there is a danger that the blood of whites may be spilled,” he adds, “the local authorities in the South suddenly enforce law and order when previously they had been complacent toward lawless, racist violence.”
Because they were not willing to risk armed Black resistance – because they were not willing to have white blood on their hands – the police were forced to intervene and stop the Klan and other racist white vigilantes from attacking Black citizens. Contrary to Dunbar-Ortiz, who wants to end racist gun violence by abolishing Second Amendment right, Williams found that racist gun violence ends when Black people exercise their Second Amendment rights.
“It is remarkable how easily and quickly state and local police control and disperse lawless mobs when the Negro is ready to defend himself with arms,” Williams explains. “The lawful authorities of Monroe and North Carolina acted to enforce order only after, and as a direct result of, our being armed. Previously they had connived with the Ku Klux Klan in the racist violence against our people. Self-defense prevented bloodshed and forced the law to establish order.”
When right wing vigilantes arm themselves, they do so to protect white space, white families, and white power from the perceived threat of people of color. But when Black people arm themselves in organized self-defense, they do so in response to a very real threat of white supremacist violence. When right wing vigilantes arm themselves, it leads to lawless violence. But when Black people arm themselves in organized self-defense, Williams insists, it prevents lawless violence.
“Williams found that racist gun violence ends when Black people exercise their Second Amendment rights.”
Williams’s Negroes With Guns was a popular text that inspired the self-defense philosophies of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. But even Martin Luther King Jr. believed in some forms of armed self-defense. “Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection,” explains Adam Winkler, professor at UCLA School of Law. “Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as ‘an arsenal.’”
While some might argue that Williams’s observations from the 1960s are now outdated, Black citizens disagree, as more and more are purchasing firearms and starting gun clubs since the election of Trump. NBC News reported last year, “The Age of Trump Is Producing More Black Gun Owners.” Echoing Williams’s philosophy of self-defense, Kevin Jones, director of the National African-American Gun Association in Cleveland, Ohio, said, “People feel like they don’t have a voice in the government and that the government is changed to a point where it doesn’t care about protecting them. It cares about something else completely. So when you have that, you’re going to have people losing confidence in police protection and losing confidence in their political structure and everything surrounding that.”
Black women are also getting involved. As The Guardian recently reported, “More black women are learning to use guns: ‘this is a movement, and it starts now.’” The emergence of contemporary Black women’s gun clubs include Trigger Happy Firearms Instruction in Georgia and the Black Women’s Defense League in Texas.
“When Black people arm themselves in organized self-defense, they do so in response to a very real threat of white supremacist violence.”
Black women’s involvement in the Black radical tradition of armed self-defense, however, is nothing new. In 1892, the radical Black journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells argued that “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life.”
The recent trend in Black gun ownership has not emerged without debate. For example, R.J. Young, a Black male gun owner from Oklahoma, expressed concern that the police would be more likely to commit violence against him if he was carrying his firearm at the time of a traffic stop, even if he had a leg permit. “I’m probably more likely to have harm done to me if I have a firearm on me because a cop stopping me is not the same as a cop stopping a white person,” he said. “I have a duty to inform any officer who stops me that I am carrying and that I have a permit for it. But how they react to that, I can’t say. And that scares me.”
Courtney Cable, a Black female gun owner from Michigan, expressed similar concerns: “Even though I’m a gun holder and I’m licensed to carry, being stopped by the police still worries me. It’s gotten to the point where I kind of don’t want to carry because it makes me more uneasy to drive while having my gun in my vehicle.”
These concerns are unquestionably warranted, given that this very thing happened to Philando Castile in 2016, and the officer who killed him did so with impunity.
“The radical Black journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells argued that ‘A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.’”
But others have hoped to change the stereotypes about “Negroes with guns.” Stephen Yorkman, organizer of the Robert F. Williams Gun Club in Prince George’s County, Maryland, argues that “We need to create a different, better perception of black people with guns so that in an open-carry state the image of a black person with a gun doesn’t so alarm a police officer. And we need to make it so it’s no longer a sin in the black community to be a gun owner, but that it’s more accepted.”
Thus, the Black radical tradition of armed self-defense is both historically important and currently relevant. From Robert F. Williams to Yorkman’s Robert F. Williams Gun Club, from Ida B. Wells to the Black Women’s Defense League, Black communities have debated the advantages and disadvantaged of self-defense philosophies. They have distinguished between vigilante white supremacist violence and officially-sanctioned state repression. They have differentiated individual firearm ownership from structured self-defense organizations. And when they have determined it to be in their best interest, Black communities have armed themselves – individually and collectively.
Unfortunately, Dunbar-Ortiz’s Second Amendment abolitionism fails to consider the effect it would have on these Black self-defense initiatives. Black citizens who feel safer carrying a gun or joining a gun club would be prohibited from doing so. And while one of the major threats to Black life in Amerika – namely, white supremacist vigilantism – might be mitigated or eliminated by the abolition of the Second Amendment, the other major threat to Black life – the police, the domestic branch of the military – would remain intact.
Dunbar-Ortiz is correct that the NRA’s defense of the Second Amendment is rooted in a history of violent settler colonialism and racialized slavery, but she is wrong to suggest that this is the only history of the Second Amendment. The Black Radical Tradition also has a history of Second Amendment thought and action, which has manifested itself in the writings of Ida B. Wells and in the accomplishments of the Black Panthers.
“Dunbar-Ortiz’s Second Amendment abolitionism fails to consider the effect it would have on Black self-defense initiatives.”
While one might make a convincing argument for abolishing the Second Amendment in a time when mass shootings and racist violence were on the decline or non-existent, the fact is that such violence is making its return in the age of Trump. Black citizens know this, and that is why they are arming themselves in greater numbers. If Williams’s account of Black armed self-defense in Monroe is any indication, it may be an effective strategy.
Rather than abolishing the Second Amendment, we should remain focused on the root of the problem: militaristic capitalism and settler colonial racism. Dunbar-Ortiz rightly argues that contemporary vigilante gun violence is merely one part of a larger culture of colonial militarism that pervades U.S. history and culture, and this makes her Second Amendment abolitionism all the more confusing.
Rather than disarming oppressed communities on the way to disarming right wing “gun nuts,” we should work to disarm what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”: our own government. Abolishing the Second Amendment might keep guns out the hand of white supremacists, but it would also take guns away from those Black and Indigenous communities who might decide to follow the examples of Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, the Panthers, and Robert F. Williams, arming themselves in resistance to the Amerikan imperial murder parade.
Patrick D. Anderson is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on the Anticolonial Tradition of Black Radical Thought. He can be reached at [email protected]