Historian Uncovers The Racist Roots Of The 2nd Amendment

Do Black people have full Second Amendment rights?

That’s the question historian Carol Anderson set out to answer after Minnesota police killed Philando Castile, a Black man with a license to carry a gun, during a 2016 traffic stop.

“Here was a Black man who was pulled over by the police, and the police officer asked to see his identification. Philando Castile, using the NRA guidelines, alerts to the officer that he has a licensed weapon with him,” she says. “[And] the police officer began shooting.”

In the 1990s, after the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the National Rifle Association condemned federal authorities as “jackbooted government thugs.” But Anderson says the organization “went virtually silent” when it came to Castile’s case, issuing a tepid statement that did not mention Castile by name.

In her new book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, Anderson traces racial distinctions in Americans’ treatment of gun ownership back to the founding of the country and the Second Amendment, which states:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The language of the amendment, Anderson says, was crafted to ensure that slave owners could quickly crush any rebellion or resistance from those whom they’d enslaved. And she says the right to bear arms, presumably guaranteed to all citizens, has been repeatedly denied to Black people.

“One of the things that I argue throughout this book is that it is just being Black that is the threat. And so when you mix that being Black as the threat with bearing arms, it’s an exponential fear,” she says. “This isn’t an anti-gun or a pro-gun book. This is a book about African Americans’ rights.”


Interview Highlights

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, by Carol Anderson

Bloomsbury Publishing

On the crafting of the Second Amendment at the Constitutional Convention

It was in response to the concerns coming out of the Virginia ratification convention for the Constitution, led by Patrick Henry and George Mason, that a militia that was controlled solely by the federal government would not be there to protect the slave owners from an enslaved uprising. And … James Madison crafted that language in order to mollify the concerns coming out of Virginia and the anti-Federalists, that they would still have full control over their state militias — and those militias were used in order to quell slave revolts. … The Second Amendment really provided the cover, the assurances that Patrick Henry and George Mason needed, that the militias would not be controlled by the federal government, but that they would be controlled by the states and at the beck and call of the states to be able to put down these uprisings.

On Black people’s access to arms after the American Revolution

You saw incredible restrictions being put in place about limiting access to arms. And this is across the board for free Blacks and, particularly, for the enslaved. And with each uprising, the laws became even more strict, even more definitive, about who could and who could not bear arms. And so free Blacks were particularly proscribed. And so we see this, for instance, in Georgia, where Georgia had a law that restricted the carrying of guns.

On the Founding Fathers’ fear of a slave revolt, which was stoked by the Haitian Revolution

When Haiti began to overthrow the French colonial masters and were seizing that country for themselves, when Blacks were seizing that country for themselves, the violence of the Haitian Revolution, the existence of the Haitian Revolution, just sent basically an earthquake of fear throughout the United States. You had George Washington lamenting the violence. You had Thomas Jefferson talking about [how] he was fearful that those ideas over there, if they get here, it’s going to be fire. You had James Madison worried. …

Whites … were fleeing Haiti and were bringing their enslaved populations with them, their enslaved people with them. … [There was a fear that] the ideas that these Black Haitians would have, that somehow those ideas of revolution, those ideas of racial justice, those ideas of freedom and democracy would just metastasize throughout Virginia’s Black enslaved population and cause a revolt. You had that same fear coming out of Baltimore that then began to open up the public armory to whites, saying, “You are justified in being armed because they’re bringing too many of these Black Haitians, these enslaved Haitians, up here who have these ideas that Black people can be free.”

On how the Black Panthers responded to restrictions on Black people’s ability to bear arms in the 1960s

What the Black Panthers were dealing with was massive police brutality. Just beating on Black people, killing Black people at will with impunity. And the Panthers decided that they would police the police. Huey P. Newton, who was the co-founder of the Black Panthers along with Bobby Seale, … knew the law, and he knew what the law said about being able to open-carry weapons and the types of weapons you were able to openly carry and how far you had to stand away from the police arresting somebody or interrogating somebody. … And the police did not like having these aggressive Black men and women doing that work of policing the police. And the response was a thing called the Mulford Act, and the Mulford Act set out to ban open carrying of weapons. And it was drafted by a conservative assemblyman in California with the support and help of an NRA representative and eagerly signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan as a way to make illegal what the Panthers were legally doing.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Why the American left gave up on political violence

despite what Trump has claimed, repeatedly, in his public statements since the tragic events there, the willingness to employ organized violence to achieve political goals remains a signature quality of only one side. And it’s not the left.

.. Extremism on the left is real. It can be seen in attempts to stifle the free speech of conservative speakers on university campuses (as at Middlebury and Berkeley); in the belligerent attitudes toward corporations and capitalism expressed, for instance, by some fringes of the Occupy Wall Street crowd and anti-globalization protesters; and among anti-Zionist movements that peddle conspiracy theories (such as the contention that Jews control U.S. foreign policy) to delegitimize Israel.

.. organized and strategic violence and incitement embraced by right-wing extremists, whose leaders profess faith in the necessity of the fight. Nothing the left can do today even comes close to that — and hasn’t for decades.

.. Labor unions battled constantly with railroad barons, industrial tycoons and mining bosses during the Gilded Age. Even while outnumbered and outgunned, usually by private armies that enjoyed the backing of law enforcement and state militias, workers fought in bloody clashes that left dozens dead on battlefields such as Chicago’s Haymarket Square (1886) and West Virginia’s Blair Mountain (1921).

.. for many younger activists who came of age in the postwar era, violence remained a key strategy — even a way of life.

  • Inspired by the Black Panthers’ embrace of violence for self-defense, and
  • enraged by the escalating war in Vietnam,
  • antiwar protesters from New Left organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) sought to “bring the war home” to end the fighting abroad.
  • This concept culminated in the rioting during the 1968 Democratic convention and on university campuses.
  • Radical offshoots including the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army took things even further: The former bombed government buildings, and the latter committed homicide, robbery and, famously, kidnapping.

But since the 1960s, left-wing movements in the United States (and in the West writ large) have gradually turned away from violence. There are three main reasons for this.

  1. The first is practical: It backfired terribly.
    • The Vietnam War protesters initially believed that their country was beyond redemption, so a revolution was imperative. This The Vietnam War protesters initially believed that their country was beyond redemption, so a revolution was imperative. This alienated the general public, helped unify a deeply divided conservative movement and emboldened Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” Violence proved counterproductive to ending the war; if anything, it helped prolong it. and emboldened Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” Violence proved counterproductive to ending the war; if anything, it helped prolong it.
    • Mark Rudd, a leader of the Weather Underground, sounded an unequivocal mea culpa. “Much of what the Weathermen did had the opposite effect of what we intended,” he conceded. “. . . We isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI. . . . We might as well have been on their payroll.”
  2. The left’s second reason for rejecting violence was even simpler: There were better ways to get things done. The civil rights and feminist movements showed that nonviolent protest could achieve tangible political goals.
    • it was not based only on ethical principles of Christian brotherly love but also on shrewd political calculations.
    • The lesson: There was no point in challenging the legitimacy of a government that enabled them to accomplish many, albeit not all, of their goals through the democratic process.
    • the modern left, which coalesced around George McGovern’s quixotic 1972 presidential run, effectively represented a gathering of fugitives.
      • African Americans,
      • Hispanics,
      • women,
      • gay men and lesbians,
      • Native Americans, and
      • workers:
    • These long-ostracized groups, which came to replace the New Deal coalition anchored by the white working class, were the very peoples against whom violence had been done for so long.
  3. Their painful histories made them instinctively averse to, and intolerant of, political violence. Those who had survived lynchings, beatings, bombings, sexual violence, forced removals and economic exploitation were least disposed to employ them in return.
    • Antifa is mostly anarchist in nature; its members are suspicious and dismissive of the left’s embrace of government institutions. More important, it is loosely banded, disorganized and low scale. Brawling on campuses, throwing rocks or vandalizing property is reprehensible and illegal. But it is incomparable to the scope and breadth of organized violence demonstrated by the extreme right.

The left has successfully integrated into most political, economic and cultural facets of the country, but members of the extreme right say they have been

  • devastated by the economic effects of globalization,
  • disempowered by multiculturalism and
  • disenfranchised by the election of the nation’s first African American president.

.. Organized militias that are well armed, well trained and well networked have seen a particular spike since the beginning of the Obama presidency.

.. “Sovereign citizens” are armed to the teeth and willing to challenge officials, as they did in last year’s armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Many such militiamen have killed or injured local police.

.. They pose a greater threat than the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, according to a 2016 U.S. government report: “Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001,

  • far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while
  • radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent).”

‘Policing The Police’: How The Black Panthers Got Their Start

Nearly 50 years ago, in 1966, a group of six black men in Oakland, Calif., came together in an effort to curb police brutality against African-Americans in the city. Because of a quirk in California law, the men were able to carry loaded weapons openly. The Black Panthers, as they became known, would follow the police around, jumping out of their cars with guns drawn if the police made a stop.

“They would observe the police and make sure that no brutality occurred,” filmmaker Stanley Nelson tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “What they were really doing was policing the police.”

.. the group was a response to what some saw as the limitations of the nonviolent civil rights movement.

.. young people, who kind of felt that the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King … had run its course,” Nelson says. “It had gotten what it could get, and something else was needed; new tactics were needed.”

.. the Panthers put forth a 10-point program that sought to address a host of problems, including police brutality, poor housing and subpar education.

.. Sometimes the rhetoric is definitely over-the-top, and I think that’s one of the things that the Panthers knew and wanted it to be over-the-top. It’s saying, “OK, we’re going to totally break from what the traditional civil rights movement is asking for. We’re not asking for a right to sit on a bus or eat in a restaurant — our demands are much more radical, and they might be over-the-top, but they’ll also get your attention.” And I think [what] the Black Panthers wanted to do — they wanted to get attention. I think what happens as time goes on is they are kind of trapped into this corner that they’ve painted for themselves: one, with the over-the-top rhetoric; two, with the guns that they carry at first.

the Panthers saw that young kids were not being fed breakfast before school; there was no national government program to give kids a healthy meal before school. So the Panthers just started doing it

.. It was a very, very successful program for the Panthers, and actually J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, said it was probably the most dangerous thing that the Panthers were doing, because it was winning not only the hearts and minds of young kids but also of their parents.

.. “Every young black man has a black leather jacket or can get one or can borrow one if they can’t buy one.”

.. The look was very, very calculated. This was a break from … Martin Luther King and the suits and ties and that kind of “we’re going to look proper.” … A lot of people don’t know that was really part of the traditional civil rights movement, that they dressed up because they wanted to show you the difference between them all dressed up in suits and ties — the women were encouraged to wear dresses and sometimes little white gloves — because they wanted to show you the difference between them and the mobs that would be chasing them or screaming at them.

.. [Hoover] issues memos … that basically say to his agents, “Do anything that you can, anything that you can think of to destroy the party.” So the FBI does things that range from infiltrating the party and having agent provocateurs inside the Panther Party who are provoking violent acts and buying guns and supplying guns to the Panthers, to he has [a] memo that says we have to set spouse against spouse. .

.. The idea of writing letters to people’s husbands or wives to tear them apart … that was one of the tactics that the FBI was using, but just anything that they could possibly do to tear people apart and to create the sense of paranoia

.. You didn’t know what was true or what was not true; you didn’t know who your friends were. All of those things the FBI was using and I don’t think anybody really understood the extent and the low level that the FBI would sink to to destroy people it looked at as its enemies.