The Second Amendment is so inherently, structurally flawed, so based on Black debasement and exclusion, that, unlike the other amendments, it can never be a pathway to civil and human rights for 47.5 million African Americans.
– Carol Anderson, The Second
In her groundbreaking new book The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury), distinguished American historian Professor Carol Anderson describes the history of how American gun laws, and the Second Amendment in particular, have been used to control and subjugate Black people.
Professor Anderson’s book is neither “pro-gun” nor “anti-gun” but instead analyzes the role of guns and racial violence throughout our history and the disheartening denial of rights when it comes to African Americans. As she notes, white fear of Black people was pronounced at the inception of the Second Amendment in the 1780s when one of the founders said that the provision was needed “to keep a fearful monster in chains.” She shows how the amendment was not about gun rights, but rather founded on “anti-Blackness” evidenced by the morbid fear of armed Black people.
As Professor Anderson chronicles, as early as the 1600s, white colonists in America legally banned all people of African descent from owning and possessing firearms. White fear of potentially rebellious enslaved people and free Blacks fueled these draconian laws. And the interests of Southern enslavers were preeminent in the adoption of the controversial Second Amendment.
In The Second, Professor Anderson vividly recounts the bloody history from the vicious treatment of enslaved people to the forgotten massacres of Blacks in the Jim Crow era and to the 21st century in cases such as the murders of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Breonna Taylor, and police killings of Black “good guys” with guns. To this day, as she illustrates, the rights of Black Americans have been denied under the Second Amendment.
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University. Her other books include White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation’s Divide, a New York Times Bestseller, Washington Post Notable Book of 2016, and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner; as well as Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955; Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960; and recently One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and a finalist for the PEN/Galbraith Award in non-fiction.
Professor Anderson frequently speaks on and writes about history and race for the broadcast media and many scholarly and popular publications. As she has described, the core of her research agenda is “how policy is made and unmade, how racial inequality and racism affect that process and outcome, and how those who have taken the brunt of those laws, executive orders, and directives have worked to shape, counter, undermine, reframe, and, when necessary, dismantle the legal and political edifice used to limit their rights and their humanity.” For her, our fraught history must be told honestly and fully to understand how we got to where we are now.
Professor Anderson graciously responded by telephone to questions about her new book and her work as a historian from her office in Atlanta.
Robin Lindley: You’re a leading expert on the history, law and policy of race in America, Professor Anderson. Your award-winning book White Rage detailed episodes of relentless white resistance to Black progress since the Civil War. What inspired your groundbreaking new book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America?
Professor Carol Anderson: It was the killing of Philando Castile. So let me back up. After White Rage, I wrote a book called One Person, No Vote on how voter suppression is destroying our democracy. And prior to that, I wrote Eyes Off the Prize and Bourgeois Radicals. And so, what has been in my wheelhouse is looking at African-Americans’ denial of rights and their fight for rights.
So this book was inspired by the killing of Philando Castile, a Black man who was pulled over by the police. The police officer asked to see his ID. Following NRA guidelines, Philando Castile alerted the officer that he had with him a license to carry a weapon. But, as he was reaching for his ID, as the officer had requested, the police officer just began shooting and Philando Castile was killed. He was killed not because he was brandishing a weapon, not because he was threatening the police officer or anybody around him, but simply because he had a weapon that he was licensed to carry.
And the NRA went virtually silent on the killing of Philando Castile. Now they didn’t go silent at Ruby Ridge. They didn’t go silent at Waco. And so that led pundits to ask, well, don’t Black people have Second Amendment rights? And I thought, Lord, that’s a great question. Right? And, and that’s what got me on this hunt because I had explored so many of the other rights, but I hadn’t explored this one. That was the genesis for this study.
Robin Lindley: That was a horrifying incident that was shared on video. Among other things, you detail the complex story of how the founders came to adopt the Second Amendment at the Constitutional Convention. What did you learn? It seems the non-slave states used the amendment to bribe the South to embrace the new Constitution.
Professor Carol Anderson: Part of what I lay out was that, at the Constitutional Convention, the South had already been playing hardball with the rest of the delegates. Basically, [Southern delegates argued that] if we don’t get our way, if we don’t get to enshrine and empower slavery in this new nation, we’re going to walk and there will not be a United States of America. And so, this is how we ended up with 20 additional years of the Atlantic slave trade and the fugitive slave clause, as well as the three-fifths clause.
And the South playing hardball was standard operating procedure. When it came time for the ratification, the ratification had stalled, and James Madison was sent down to his home state of Virginia to get Virginia on board. And there, he ran into the buzzsaw of Patrick Henry and George Mason and the other anti-federalists who were really clear: they did not like having federal control of the militia, which is what Madison wrote in the Constitution, because they didn’t trust those people up north who detested slavery and they believed they would be left defenseless. If there is a slave revolt, we can’t count on them and there would be no militia down here to protect us.
And so, the South was threatening to scuttle the Constitution and call a new Constitutional Convention. And Madison was absolutely afraid that this was going to open up a Pandora’s box that would lead the nation back to the Articles of Confederation.
Mason was saying that we need to have a Bill of Rights that can protect us. Madison understood that Bill of Rights argument because, when Virginia did ratify the Constitution, it ratified with an addendum to the Bill of Rights that included the right to a well-regulated militia. And so, Madison understood his marching orders, and he was like a man obsessed with crafting a Bill of Rights. That is why you see this kind of weird [Second Amendment] when you also get freedom of speech; the right to freedom of the press; the right not to have a state sponsored religion; the right not to be illegally searched and seized; the right to a speedy and fair trial; the right not to endure cruel and unusual punishment. And then you get a weird right to a well-regulated militia for the security of the state. That thing is an outlier, and it is an outlier because that was the bribe to the South, to Patrick Henry, to George Mason, to the anti-federalists.
You had state protection of the militias and states could use their militias to control Black people the way that Southerners had consistently used militias. And they didn’t have to worry that the federal government would not protect them. So sitting in the Bill of Rights we have the right to control Black people.
Robin Lindley: That’s an incredible story from our founding. What does a well-regulated militia mean and what were ways that the South used militias to control enslaved people?
Professor Carol Anderson: So let me back up. One of the narratives that we currently have in this nation is that the militias are this heroic force that fended off the British and fought for American liberty and independence, and that militias would fight to end domestic tyranny. But at the time when they were writing the Constitution, the founders knew that the militias were not reliable as a force against a professional army. George Washington was beside himself because sometimes during the American Revolution the militia would show up, and sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes it would take off running. So how do you fight a war? You don’t know if your forces are going to be there. So the idea of an incredible militia that could take on the British was not quite accurate.
And you had Shay’s rebellion where white men were attacking the Massachusetts government, but when the Massachusetts government called out the militia, the militia [decided] no, we’re not fighting them. In fact, some members of the militia joined in Shay’s rebellion. This was occurring right before they were drafting the Constitution.
But what that militia could do consistently well was put down slave revolts. And one of the things that my research was unpacking and showing was the absolute fear of Black people that white people had in the burgeoning United States of America. You see this in terms of the fear of slave revolts and the architecture put up to control slave uprisings. You get laws that banned Black people from having literacy and the laws that banned them from having access to weapons. And you also got the rise of slave patrols, which were the smaller units that could go in and monitor the enslaved, and go into their cabins and hunt for tools of liberation, such as books and weapons. The role of militias was to really take on slave revolts and put them down.
In 1739, the Stono rebellion in South Carolina sent shockwaves through the South because Black folks rose up and they were willing to kill whites. So the fear that this could happen was actually realized and already on the books was a law saying that all white men had to carry their guns at all times. So when Stono blew up, the alarm rang and white men were in church and they got their guns as part of the militia, and they went after participants in the Stono rebellion and hunted them down.
Robin Lindley: What sparked the Stono rebellion?
Professor Carol Anderson: It was the quest to get to freedom in Spanish Florida, where there wasn’t slavery and it was that quest for freedom that drove folks at Stono. The inflamed who sparked the Stono insurrection were on a road-building crew, a labor gang. They were there surveilling and paying attention, doing the intel. When are the guards here? How deep are the guards? Where are the weapons kept? They were getting that sense of the intel to know how to attack and get to freedom. And so the word came down that whites had to stop them.
And then came new laws. In 1740, a law was passed that required any enslaved person who was captured trying to get to Spanish Florida, had to be scalped. There was also the 1740 Negro Act, which became foundational in terms of slave codes. That law defined African descendants or the enslaved as basically absolute slaves for now and even for those not yet born. It also described limits on their freedom of movement. It basically banned literacy and banned access to weapons. And it defined Black people as inherently criminals who have to be subjugated by whites. And so that is so foundational for the framing of the anti-Blackness that I’m talking about that courses through to the 21st century.
Robin Lindley: And that provides the context for the adoption of the Second Amendment you describe. In your book, you also go back to early colonial times in the 1600s, when laws were already adopted to ban Black people from possessing weapons.
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes. This research really began to lay out the fear of Black people, and you’re seeing it in the laws. You’re seeing it in the “thou shalt not have guns.” And, if Blacks have guns, it can only be in the presence of whites. That becomes conditional in terms of what whites need.
We see this as well when it comes to fighting wars. During the War for Independence, African-Americans were banned from the Continental Army in 1775. It was only because they couldn’t get enough white men to enlist, and the British were just bringing it, that the Northern colonies began to relent and say, if you’re enslaved you will get your freedom if you join and fight with us. This was also in response to what the colonists saw as the horror of the edict of Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor out of Virginia, who said the enslaved who were owned by these rebels would get their freedom if they fought for the King, and then you saw this mass Exodus to the British. The fear of Black people with arms was mitigated because of the exigencies of war. But what we also see is that, once the war was over, white leaders thought how do we disarm them? How do we reassert our authority? This was part of the mechanism in the laws consistently.
Robin Lindley: And since colonial times, as you contend, there was no right of self-defense for Black people, whether they were free or slave.
Professor Carol Anderson: Right. One of the things that I do with the Second Amendment is I take it in terms of the way that we understand it and that is: the right to bear arms, the right to well-regulated militia, and the right to self-defense. And I ask: how do those principles carry through for Black people? And what I see is that they are overwhelmingly used against Black people and also that African Americans don’t have the right to self-defense. I walk through the cases of that historically, and bring us up to the modern day, and the modern-day version of that is “stand your ground” laws. And stand your ground expands the castle doctrine that says that if somebody comes into your home, you have the right to defend yourself because you have an intruder. What stand your ground says is that, anywhere you have a right to be and you perceive a threat, you have the right to defend yourself and a right to use lethal force.
There are many problems with the stand your ground proposition, and a key problem is the perception of threat when Black is the default threat in American society. That perception of threat means that you can feel you are imperiled when you’re really not simply because there’s a Black person there. We see that, for instance, in the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case. In that narrative you had a 17-year-old who had gone to the convenience store to get Skittles and iced tea during halftime of the NBA All-Star game. He was on the phone, walking back, and George Zimmerman, a grown man saw him, saw a Black child, and saw him as suspicious. The gunman told the 911 operator that there was something wrong there, and ”these a**holes always get away.” And so, Zimmerman takes a loaded nine-millimeter handgun and gets out of his SUV, and he stalks this child through this neighborhood, and this unarmed child is killed by a bullet put into his chest by Zimmerman. And Zimmerman hollered self-defense and he walked.
Now, when you look at that unarmed child and that grown man with a loaded weapon, the grown man with a loaded weapon is the one who was the catalyst, the one who sparked the encounter. And he walked because of what we call the “thugification” of Trayvon Martin, where he becomes taller and heavier and, in photos, they darken him to create a scary Black guy, a dangerous Black guy.
Robin Lindley. That’s another horrific recent murder. In the Antebellum era, as you write, even freed Blacks in the North were not considered citizens, and white supremacy was the dominant attitude throughout the US. And Southern enslavers feared more revolts as with Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner in the early nineteenth century as laws prevented Black people from owning or possessing weapons and even required that whites search Black property for guns.
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes. In Georgia, for instance, the law said that slave patrols had the authority to search any Black person’s home, enslaved or free. There was a Georgia Supreme Court Case in 1846, after the state passed a law, because there was so much violence, that banned open carry of weapons. In the Nunn decision, the Georgia Supreme Court decided that laws that banned open carrying of weapons violated the Second Amendment rights of white men, but it left in place the Georgia law that banned Black people, free Blacks and enslaved, from having weapons ostensibly because they did not have the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And that’s one of the through lines you see coursing through history.
I’m arguing that, whether Black people were armed or unarmed, it was the fear of Black people that was the driver of laws here.
Robin Lindley: After the Civil War, even though enslaved people were emancipated, they faced tremendous violence and no right to bear arms. Carl Schurz investigated treatment of Black people in the South right after the Civil War. Can you talk about his journey in 1865 and 1866 and the atrocities against Black people that he documented?
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes. Schurz was a Major General in the Union Army of the United States of America. [President] Andrew Johnson sent him to understand the conditions in the South.
What Schurz found just shook him. He ran into a carnival of death. He described the Black bodies. The dismembered bodies. The severed limbs. The bodies decomposing, piled up on roadways. He described the torture such as being tied to a tree and set on fire to burn alive. And he reported the glee that whites took in putting these free people back in their place.
What Carl Schurz described in his work on the conditions in the South was a free-for-all of violence against Black people. And part of what is stirring the tumult is not just the defeat, but it is the leniency of Andrew Johnson who provided amnesty to many of the Confederate leaders who regained control of their state governments and began to pass laws like the Black Codes that try to re-install slavery by another name by requiring annual labor contracts from the freed people who weren’t permitted to leave that employer for somebody who paid better. And the Codes also required disarmament of Black people. That was to re-install slavery. So they required Black people to work for them, and required them to be disarmed. And the battle was on because Black people understood that the gun was all that protected them from the reinstallation of slavery by another name.
But, in many cases, Black people were outgunned and out-manned. And so, the slaughter was just horrific. And the Black troops stationed in the South as part of the occupying army tried to get in between the paramilitary forces and the freed people to provide a level of protection. But you had, again, whites hollering up to Andrew Johnson that yes, it’s violent here, but it’s because of those Black troops who just enraged so many whites seeing them in their uniforms, parading with their guns. They’re out here to kill all white people. If you got rid of the Black troops, then we would have peace in the South.
Andrew Johnson obliged, and the Black troops were removed. But that did not bring peace to the South.
We would later see slaughter after slaughter. We would see the Colfax massacre of 1873, which is a case where history may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. There, whites in Louisiana were upset about the results of an election because a Republican government was put in place. These upset whites launched an assault against the courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, which was the citadel of democracy in that city, in that county. The Black militia tried to defend it but didn’t have the weaponry and the ammunition that they needed. They were overwhelmed and they were slaughtered. Slaughtered. And the government in Louisiana was so politically polarized and fractious that there wasn’t the will to hold the men who did the killing accountable. So the federal government stepped in and charged eight of the leaders with violating the Third Enforcement Act, which dealt with domestic terrorism. Then the Supreme Court in the United States v. Cruickshank decision ruled that the Enforcement Act only applied to state actors, not to private groups like the Klan. Therefore, these killers did not violate the Third Enforcement Act because it didn’t apply to them.
Robin Lindley: That was a terrible decision. You mention that as many as 300 black people were killed at Colfax, including 60 who were murdered after they surrendered.
Professor Carol Anderson: And Cruikshank was giving license to mass murder.
Robin Lindley: Didn’t the Cruikshank decision also hold that the 14th Amendment didn’t apply because that the acts of terror by the Klan were not state actions?
Professor Carol Anderson: Right. And the Supreme Court also decided under the 13th Amendment that segregation was not a badge of servitude, and that the 14th Amendment didn’t apply to private citizens or to corporations, and that the 15th Amendment really was not about protecting the right to vote. And now, you see how the Court, the legal system, and the political system continue to treat Black people not as citizens and not as human beings, but as fodder for this nation.
Robin Lindley: You vividly chronicle the white resistance and violence that Black people faced after the Civil War and during Jim Crow era with intimidation, torture and mass lynching in the South. And when Black soldiers returned from the battlefields of World War I, the violent Red Summer of 1919 followed with whites attacking and injuring or killing hundreds of Black people in numerous US cities. The horrible events in Elaine, Arkansas, are one harrowing and seemingly forgotten example of what Black people faced in the Jim Crow era.
Professor Carol Anderson: In Elaine, Arkansas, then, Black people were overwhelmingly sharecroppers. They hadn’t received any of the extra money that was coming in to the land owners when the price of cotton had gone up. And there was one year when they worked and many didn’t get paid. Imagine working for an entire year and not getting paid anything. And so that was wage theft, labor theft.
The Black sharecroppers began to organize a union that would see to it that they could get paid for their labor. They believed that if the white folks found out about the organizing, they’d be killed. And so, they held organizing meetings at a church in Hoops Spur, Arkansas. And armed sentries were placed outside for protection, for self-defense. When a sentry saw a car coming that was sent by the wealthy landowners, there was an exchange of gunfire. One white man was killed and another white man was wounded. The word got back to the town fathers that this was a Black insurrection. They’re trying to kill all of the white people was the rumor. No, they were trying to get paid for their labor. And they were trying to assert the right to self-defense. A mob came and began slaughtering Black folks. Black folks shot back and two more white men were killed.
In this moment, the word spread that they killed more white people. And so, the governor put pressure on and got the US Army to come into Elaine, Arkansas, bringing machine guns that have been used in the war in France. And they used those machine guns. They would go to one cane break, which is an area of very thick, dense vegetation, where African-Americans were hiding for safety from the mob and from the troops. And they were just mowed down with these machine guns, mowed down in the cane break. According to some estimates, as many as 800 Black people were killed at Elaine, Arkansas.
Robin Lindley: I don’t think many people have heard about that horrific massacre of fellow Americans. It’s somewhat heartening to know that more people are learning our history and about situations like the Tulsa massacre in 1921.
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes. With Tulsa, you had Black men who were armed coming to the courthouse to ensure that there wasn’t a lynching of young Dick Rowland who had been accused of attempted rape of a white woman. Having Black men with arms and Black men who were successful was just absolutely enraging to that white mob. There was some kind of scuffle, and a gun went off. Then the sheriff deputized the mob and they descended upon Black Wall Street and burned it down, just burned it down. Lots of looting, lots of killing, and even dropping bombs from airplanes on the neighborhood, leveling it.
Robin Lindley: And it’s estimated that more than 300 Black people—men, women and children—were killed in the Tulsa massacre. And Greenwood, their neighborhood, was burnt to the ground.
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes, and again you’re seeing that Black people had no right to bear arms. And they did not have the right to self-defense, and this is after the war to make the world safe for democracy.
Robin Lindley: Yes. And they also didn’t have the right to prosperity because a thriving Black community was anathema in the time of Jim Crow.
Professor Carol Anderson: Right. You can see how that prosperity undercuts the narrative of Black inferiority and undercuts the narrative of Black subjugation. If you have white supremacy, that means that whites are always much more successful because they’ve got what it takes. And when you have Black folks who are doing really well and whites aren’t, that just flips the evidence and flips traditional narrative, and that is disconcerting. It is like cognitive dissonance. And it is enraging to people who have been baptized in white supremacy.
Robin Lindley: You make that case powerfully. To bring your history to the present, even after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, you write that Black people still enjoy no rights under the Second Amendment. And you discuss some recent heartbreaking cases, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin, as you mentioned, as well as deaths of Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice.
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes. And juxtapose the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 17-year-old who crossed state lines with an illegally obtained AR-15 to go to a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police officers had shot a Black man in the back seven times.
And when Kyle Rittenhouse rolled up there with his AR-15, the police officers didn’t see a threat. In fact, they welcomed him. “We really appreciate you guys being here. Hey, it’s hot out here tonight. You want some water?” Kyle Rittenhouse then shot down three [protesting] men, killing two of them and seriously wounding a third. He then walked back towards the police with his hands up as if to surrender. And they went right by him again. They didn’t see a threat.
Juxtapose that case with Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black child in Cleveland, Ohio, who was playing in a park by himself with a toy gun. And granted, the gun did not have the orange tip on it that says, hey, I’m a toy, but it’s an open carry state, and the laws say that, as long as you’re not pointing a gun at someone or threatening someone, you can open carry. There was nobody in the park. He wasn’t a threat, but the police roll up, and within two seconds, they gun down this 12-year-old child saying he was dangerous. “He was a threat. We were fearful.” So how was it that this 12-year-old playing alone in a park with a toy gun, and not threatening anyone, was dangerous and had to die? And how was Kyle Rittenhouse, who illegally obtained an AR-15 and gunned down three men, killing two of them, not a threat?
Robin Lindley: Indeed. The NRA calls for support of good guys with guns, but it appears that this admonition applies only to good white guys. And the NRA, as you argue, doesn’t come to the defense of the Black gun owners who have been shot by police officers or white citizens.
Professor Carol Anderson: Right. I also take on that good guy with a gun narrative by looking at two Black men.
Jemel Roberson in Chicago, is one. After a shooting in a club where he was a security guard, he tackled the gunman. The police ran in and the patrons pointed to the security guard and were hollering, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot. He is security.” His uniform even had security written on it, but police officers saw a Black man with a gun and shot Jemel Roberson and killed him.
Then there’s the case of Emantic Bradford, Jr., in Alabama. He was an army veteran. There was a shooting in a mall, and he took out his weapon and moved people to safety. Alabama is an open carry state but, the police ran in and they saw him, a Black man with a gun, and they shot him down. He was dead virtually immediately.
So this good guy with a gun doesn’t apply to Black people because Black is the default threat so Black can’t be good. That’s the reasoning.
Robin Lindley: That’s alarming. In looking at the Second Amendment now, what do you think can be done? Should it be repealed? How would you address it? You establish that it’s an outlier amendment still today.
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes. We need to remove the Second Amendment from its venerated hallowed ground that the NRA-crafted narrative has placed it on and we must treat the Second Amendment the way we treat the three-fifths clause of the Constitution–as something that was born of slavery and anti-Blackness.
And we need to begin to have a real conversation about what real security and real safety should look like in the United States. And that also requires that we dismantle anti-Blackness as part of our operating code.
Robin Lindley: And we have this year a record number of mass shootings, and nothing has been done legislatively at the national level. The Republicans, the party of the NRA and gun makers, have a stranglehold on Congress and will stop any meaningful gun violence laws. What do you think of efforts to examine gun violence as a public health problem?
Professor Carol Anderson: I know that there are de-escalation programs to deescalate the kind of violence and tension that happens in communities, but I can’t speak to a lot of that to tell you the truth. But, as I wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian after we had another mass shooting, what prevents us from getting real gun safety laws is the fear of Black people, the power of anti-Blackness. And the power of “if you take my gun, I will be left defenseless.” Republican Representative Lauren Boebert talks about how, if “you take our guns, we’re going to be left defenseless against the thugs, the gangbangers, and the drug dealers.” And that sounds so much like George Mason in 1788 talking about whites being left defenseless.
And so, the combination of the pandemic of mass shootings with the pandemic of anti-Blackness has prevented us from really engaging in true gun safety laws that bring about real security. I think about Jonathan Metzl’s book Dying of Whiteness. He did a study with whites in rural Missouri who had a member of their family who had been a victim of gun violence. Usually, it was suicide. He talked with family members and asked about gun safety laws, and they said absolutely not because their guns would be taken away. Those people from St. Louis would come down and try to take everything that we have. And you begin to think how that fear preys upon real issues of our safety, real issues of our quality of life, real issues of our citizenship rights.
Robin Lindley: I wish The Second could be read by every citizen.
Professor Carol Anderson: That would be wonderful because again, we have this really flattened notion of what the Second Amendment is. Part of that has been driven by the ways that it is debated as a legal concept. Is this about an individual right to bear arms, or is this about a well-regulated militia? And so, when that has been the framework for our debates, what’s missing is the role of anti-Blackness in the founding of the Second Amendment and in the implementation of the Second Amendment, and that has so much to do with how we operate now as a nation.
Robin Lindley: As you describe it, the history of the Second Amendment provides yet another example of systemic racism.
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes. And when you think about how intensely we have several of our state legislatures pushing to not teach accurate history about the way that racism has affected the development of the United States of America, we’re in trouble.
Robin Lindley: The attack on the teaching of history continues. I’d be derelict if I didn’t ask you about how voter suppression plays into the history you’ve studied after your in-depth analysis in One Person, No Vote. The theme of anti-Blackness also comes through clearly in that book. Many states are passing laws to restrict the vote now. How do you see the state of our democracy right now?
Professor Carol Anderson: Our democracy is in trouble because what we have in the narrative of voter fraud is the narrative of illegitimate American citizens–that there are people who should not be voting and their votes shouldn’t count. And so, you hear a Republican on the Board of Elections in Wayne County, Michigan, saying, “If we don’t count the votes from Detroit, we can count all of the other votes in the county.” And you have Newt Gingrich talking about, “they stole the election in Philadelphia, they stole the election in Milwaukee, and they stole the election in Atlanta.” Well, those are cities that have sizable Black populations and targeting those cities that have sizable Black populations and calling those votes illegitimate by ineligible Americans means that you do not embrace a vibrant, multiracial democracy.
Instead, what we’re seeing is this push from people like Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, who said, “I don’t believe in all this good government stuff where you want everybody to vote because I don’t want everybody to vote because, quite candidly, our leverage goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Right?
So what we’re seeing is that this wave of voter suppression bills coming through is a response to the massive voter turnout that happened in the 2020 election, in the midst of a pandemic, where you had 160 million votes cast. And then that massive turnout that happened here in Georgia in the 2021 Senate runoff race, where you had a 92 percent Black voter turnout that helped flip Georgia and helped flip the Senate.
But the response was not wow, we have a sizeable number of people who voted and look at the small number of irregularities that occurred with 160 million people voting. Georgia had three audits, one by hand. Instead, what do we get? We get Georgia’s SB 202, which targets the very means that African-Americans use to access the ballot box. One of the things that SB 202 goes after is the use of drop boxes in the city of Atlanta. The metropolitan area of Atlanta had over 90 drop boxes that were available 24/7, but SB 202 reduces that number to 23, and they will only be available in buildings during office hours. We’re seeing an effort to shut down voting.
And what is really frustrating and enraging is to know that we have some Democratic senators who care more about the filibuster than they do about democracy. They care more about a rule of the Senate that has been used consistently to undermine and stall civil rights legislation than they do about the right to vote in the face of seeing what these states are perpetuating and in the face of what the US Supreme Court ruled in the Brnovich decision [upholding Arizona’s restrictive voting laws].
Robin Lindley: It seems that much of the history you present in One Person, No Vote and The Second is unknown to most Americans. I saw that that you mentioned as an influence John Dower’s book, War Without Mercy, a study of the Pacific Theater in the Second World War and the racism and dehumanization of the enemy by both Japanese and Americans.
Professor Carol Anderson: Oh, absolutely. In War Without Mercy, John Dower looked at the power of racism in driving military policy and in driving dehumanization that allowed states to systematically destroy human beings at a kill rate that was absolutely disproportionate to the kill rate in the European theater. He looked at it not just in terms of policy, but in terms of culture, even at what was on the radio and the music. And he wrote about how the Japanese saw the United States as a mongrelized, weakened, feminized nation that, if hit really hard, would crumble and leave Asia to Japan. So you can see how policy driven by racist ideology can really do damage.
Another one of my influences was David Levering Lewis’s biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, a monument to research and analysis and being able to contextualize what happened over an arc of time. You can see Du Bois not just as this person who’s a scholar and who’s an activist, but you see him in his times and the impact that he had and the decisions he made and didn’t make, and the import of those choices. That book was a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Then there’s Michael Hunt’s Ideology and US Foreign Policy, and again, he looked at the role of race in formulating and implementing US foreign policy. For example, before the U S intervened in the Spanish American War, Cuba was depicted as this prostrate, beautiful white woman who was being ravaged by the Spanish. Then, when the US intervened and had to fight, you saw depictions of Cuba as a pickaninny, as blackened, as servile, and as needing the paternalistic benevolence of Uncle Sam to guide them out of the darkness of Spanish control.
Robin Lindley: And at the same time, US troops were slaughtering native people in the Philippines.
Professor Carol Anderson: Yes, exactly. I appreciate books that look at how race and racism works in a policy and the way that it plays itself out and the impact that it has. And another one of my influences is Brenda Gayle Plummer who wrote Rising Wind that dealt with the role of African-Americans in US foreign policy. By deliberately looking at the ways that African Americans have engaged in US foreign policy, she shows how they saw themselves in this international context and that was foundational for me.
Robin Lindley: Thank you. Those books sound fascinating. I appreciate your exploration of some of the most disgraceful and horrifying aspects of our past. At times, the work must be difficult and must be deeply affecting for you. And you’ve mentioned so many complex problems that persist. Where do you find hope now?
Professor Carol Anderson: Interestingly enough, I find hope in the history, because what I see in history is that there are always people who stand up and fight against injustice. There are always people who say, not on my watch, and those people cover the range of classes and race, right? They stand up and they’re using their instruments and playing into their best selves. If they’re writers, if they’re songwriters, they’re fighting. And that’s what I see today,
I’m not seeing any rollover. After 2016, it would have been really easy to go dang. Okay. And give up. Instead, folks mobilized, they organized, they strategized. And we had the massive midterm in 2018 and we had that incredible voter turnout in 2020.
And as I wrote in White Rage, we are getting that white rage backlash right now. But you don’t see folks just rolling over. You see them continuing to organize and mobilize while imagining what a vibrant, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy looks like. That’s where the hope is.
Robin Lindley: That’s hopeful indeed. Thank you for your passionate words and your thoughtful comments, Professor Anderson. And congratulations on your new book on the Second Amendment and your other groundbreaking work. Best wishes.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He also served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. King. He can be reached by email: [email protected]