The latest podcast episodes from the Institute of Politics, Policy, and History, the Founding Father Legacy Series, explores three men key to the founding of our nation and its capital city. IPPH, a WKKF grantee, is directed by its founder, Mayor Sharon Pratt, the first African-American woman to serve as mayor in D.C.
The first founding father at the center of these IPPH podcast episodes is James Madison. The fourth President of the United States, Madison played a significant role in the crafting of our nation’s governing documents and was known as the “Father of the Constitution.” He championed the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment: “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.” This constitutionally established right has led to a proliferation of firearm possession in the U.S., with dramatically higher rates of gun-related injuries and deaths than other nations.
For this discussion on James Madison, the Second Amendment, and race in America, Mayor Sharon Pratt was joined by Dr. Carol Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” and “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.”
Mayor Sharon Pratt: Dr. Carol Anderson, it’s such an honor to have a conversation with you again. You’re such a respected scholar. You’ve written about so many important issues, including the right to vote, and the kind of racial rage we have had in our country. Today, we want to talk about what unfortunately is an issue uppermost in the minds and the hearts of our young people in this country, and that is gun violence. Let’s just deal with the basics: why was this an amendment to the Constitution, and at that, the second of all the amendments?
Carol Anderson: It’s rooted in slavery. It is rooted in the fear of Black people. It is rooted in the fear of slave revolts. It is rooted in the fear of Black retribution. It is rooted in the conceptualization of Black people as inherently violent, inherently criminal, inherently dangerous, and an inherent threat to the white community.
We see this in the laws coming out of Virginia in the 17th century. You see this language in the laws that say that those who are enslaved and free Blacks cannot have weapons. In South Carolina in 1740, they pass what they call the Negro Act, which says that those of African descent are inherently criminal, inherently slaves, and they have to be banned from access to guns, to ammunition, to books, and to writing materials.
The things that would threaten the white community: literacy and guns in the hands of Black folk.
When we get to the War for Independence, we hear about this militia, right – that stalwart militia defending the colonies and fighting for American independence. That’s a myth. The militia was there, but sometimes they would show up to fight, sometimes they wouldn’t. So when the war is over and James Madison began drafting the Constitution, one of the things he does is puts the state militias under federal control. The thought was: putting them under this national banner could systematize the training, systematize the hierarchy and the structure, systematize them to be a fighting force.
When the ratification of the Constitution got to Virginia – and Virginia is a large slave state, right? – Patrick Henry, Mister “Give me liberty or give me death,” saw that militia under federal control, and he went off. His argument essentially was: When the slaves rise up against us, we cannot trust those folks from Pennsylvania and from Massachusetts that had already banned slavery to send the militia down here to protect us. We can’t trust them to protect us from the enslaved.
They basically threatened to scuttle the Constitution of the United States unless they got protection – protection for the slaveholders, protection against the enslaved. And so Madison went into that first Congress, and he starts drafting the Bill of Rights. Among rights like freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the right not to be illegally searched and seized; when we come to “the right to a well-regulated militia for the safety of a free state” – that Second Amendment is the bribe to the South. Like the three-fifths clause, the extension of the Atlantic slave trade for an additional 20 years, and a fugitive slave clause in the Constitution: all of those were bribes to the South to get them to sign off.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: You have legislative history that you’ve uncovered to corroborate all of this, because there’s been some pushback; some want to believe it’s the “don’t tread on me” ethos of America that inspired the Second Amendment. But we have, at least in terms of the law, comes some distance from enslavement. How is it that we’re still the only nation that has this problem?
Carol Anderson: Because the language of anti-Blackness, the language of inherent Black criminality, is so embedded in the way that this nation operates. Think about our political campaigns when they holler, “Crime, crime, crime! You have to be afraid of those urban areas!”: That’s anti-Blackness. When you hear about “these juvenile delinquents,” they mean Black kids. When we think about the most recent shooting in Kansas City, where the 84-year-old white man comes to his door because a 16-year-old Black child rang the doorbell, and the white man sees this Black kid and just starts shooting. That fear is what drives the media sphere. It drives the political language that we use. It drives public policy, this idea that the only thing standing between you and your safety is a gun.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: Other countries have had a similar conquering of indigenous people – Australia, for example – yet they don’t seem to have this kind of gun culture, this epidemic that we have here in the United States. How do we explain that? We’re like addicts who can’t seem to shake it.
Carol Anderson: We have an organization, the NRA, that has basically fused itself with a major political party and fused itself with the language of fear, crime, fear, fear, and attached that fear psychologically to Black people. Before the 1960s, the NRA had basically said: “We’re nonpartisan. We’re just a shooting club. We like folks who hunt.” But in the 1960s, the Black Panthers began arming themselves to police the police, because cops were beating up on Black folk left and right in Oakland – just shooting them down, beating them, arresting them. So the Black Panthers rose up as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
They knew what California’s gun laws were, so they knew how to carry guns. They knew what kinds of guns they could carry and what kinds they couldn’t carry. They knew how far away they had to stand as the police were making arrests. They knew the law. And so every time that the police tried to stop them, they were so frustrated because the Panthers weren’t breaking the law. So the police went to Don Mulford, who was an assemblyman in the California legislature, and Mulford had the help of the NRA in drafting the legislation for gun control in California. Now, I know that sounds shocking, the NRA drafting legislation for gun control – but it was Black people carrying the guns.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: What you’re suggesting is that our obsession with guns in America is anchored in notions of white supremacy. How is it that wasn’t shaken with Sandy Hook, Parkland, and so many other instances where young white kids have been killed?
Carol Anderson: This is when you know how deeply embedded it is. So let’s even look at what just recently happened in Tennessee, with the killing of three young white children and three school administrators in Nashville. And the response from the Republicans in the Tennessee legislature, when those young folks came to the state legislature singing “This Little Light of Mine” – it was to ignore them. White children become expendable under this.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: Where do young people go then? What can we offer them in the way of strategies and support to address this?
Carol Anderson: What we offer them is that they talk with their parents. They talk with their parents to explain the trauma, to explain the fear, and then have their parents mobilize to vote, to pay attention to who is supporting basic common sense gun safety legislation. AR-15s, which are military grade weapons, should not be in the hands of civilians. Red flag laws. Background checks on folk to make sure that folks who shouldn’t have guns don’t have guns.
It is young folks who aren’t able to vote yet mobilizing, talking with your parents, getting your parents engaged, because parents are there to protect their children. When you are able to vote, registering to vote and paying attention to who are the candidates who believe that your life is more important than a gun, and making sure that those folks are there in power to implement the kinds of policies that have to happen to bring us back to some level of safety.
Because more guns don’t make us safe.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: Part of the other problem, though, is that we have a Senate that does not necessarily reflect the will of the popular vote. It is strategically organized around geography. It’s really going to take an intense effort of young people to force America’s hand on this issue.
Carol Anderson: And it’s not just at the national level. Think about in states like Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, where the state legislature and the governors are signing off on being able to carry weapons without any training, without any registration, and it’s under the aura of “guns, guns everywhere, guns make us safer,” when in fact, they don’t.
Florida was one of the first states to pass a Stand Your Ground law. They had a woman who is a powerhouse in the NRA helping to draft that law, helping to push that law through the Florida legislature. What it says is: anywhere where you have a right to be and you perceive a threat, you do not have to retreat: You can shoot. Now begin to think about what that means when Black is the default threat in American society. It puts a crosshair on Black folk and we see the data: when somebody white shoots somebody Black, they are ten times more likely to walk under justifiable homicide than when somebody Black shoots somebody white.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: But that rage – and you talked about white rage in another book – that rage has become so out of control. Even this recent incident, where these young cheerleaders were shot; they were white teenagers, they weren’t Black. What is this rage and this growing fear being nurtured on social media and elsewhere that has America trigger happy?
Carol Anderson: During the 2020 election and during the 2022 election, the media was saturated with images of the cities burning, burning, all this crime, crime, crime. Walgreens had to leave San Francisco because of all of the crime: it turned out that was a lie. And it turned out all of this fear-mongering about “crime, crime, crime!” in these urban areas was absolutely exaggerated. But if that is what is saturating the media, if that is what is saturating your head, you begin to think about, “I’m in danger everywhere. Nowhere is safe.”
Jonathan Metzl wrote a book called Dying of Whiteness. One of the things that he did is he went into rural Missouri and he sat in on self-help groups, support groups for families who had suffered gun violence in the family. This was an all white community. He’s sitting there and he’s listening to them, and he says, “Well, have you thought about what gun safety legislation could mean?” And they were appalled. They said, “Absolutely not, because those people from St. Louis will come down here and try to take everything that we have if we don’t have our guns to protect ourselves.” “Those people in St. Louis,” those are Black folk that they’re talking about. It is that fear that you have these politicians preying on, that fear that you have media who are afraid of losing their market share.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: I think back on how a movement ultimately forced us to become a no smoking society. When I was young, I didn’t think that would ever happen. But young people built such a momentum that it happened. And I think they can do that here. They’ve got to, because our generation has dropped the ball.
Carol Anderson: One of the things, too, that helped that anti-smoking campaign was having the research data about what secondhand smoke meant. I can’t remember was in the 1990s or the early 2000s, but Congress banned the NIH or the CDC from being able to finance studies on gun violence. And so you have other folks who are trying to do that work and explaining that in those communities that have stricter gun laws, you have lower homicide rates, you have less gun violence. In those states where you have very loose gun laws, you have higher gun deaths.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: We have to hope, and I think it’s true, that young people can be the force to make the difference.
Carol Anderson: And that’s what happening in Tennessee! Those young folk coming to this Tennessee Capitol put a spotlight on that state legislature, and it also engages their parents who are going to be voting. And that’s what’s so key here: to engage civically, to engage via the vote and the networks you have.
I think we are at that tipping point where the reality of this uncontained gun violence is really mobilizing and energizing young folk to say:
“I’m not living like this, and I’m not going out like this either.”
They are working with their parents, explaining what this trauma means, explaining how they need to have their parents and their aunties and their grandparents engaged in protecting them by voting for folk who will protect their lives.
Mayor Sharon Pratt: That’s a hopeful note upon which to end this really powerful conversation. It’s too bad that we have to have this conversation, but you’ve brought such wisdom and insight to this discussion, and it helps explain why it is we are such a unique anomaly in the world, and let’s hope our young people put us in a better place.