Time to Remove Race From Gun Debate

Straight Up: Calling out black-on-black crime diverts attention from taking on the powerful gun lobby.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

(The Root) — Let’s face it, in America today black life is still not valued the same as white life. This is especially true when it comes to how we respond to and even discuss guns and violent crime. This is one of my key frustrations with the current gun-control debate and the question of how central a role race plays in such discussions.

The tragic gun killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., remain a sore wound. Merciless killer Adam Lanza took the lives of 26 people, including 20 children. We now know that the gunman came from a home with a veritable arsenal of weaponry. He fired150 rounds of ammunition in less than five minutes in the killing spree with his .223 caliber XM-15 rifle and its high-capacity magazine.

Understandably, and quite irrespective of race, the event saddened a nation and sparked new outcries for major gun-control reform. The momentum behind calls for reform was palpable. Particularly so, as the Newtown gun killings came so closely on the heels a similar mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., theater where 12 people lost their lives and another 58 were injured by cold-blooded gunman James Holmes.

Yet, well before the Newtown massacre, black communities and activists were talking about the urgent need for action on the problem of gun violence. As a result, following the natural spasm of media attention on Newtown, you could quickly hear the refrain from the black communities, “But what about Chicago? What about the steady gun violence and death of young innocents in the ghetto?” The sad poignancy of that refrain was underscored by the senseless gun murder of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at President Obama’s second inaugural just days earlier. The circumstance prompted some black activists to circulate a petition, signed by tens of thousands, calling for Obama to speak out on gun violence in Chicago.

And here is the rub: We are all rightly mortified and outraged by the Newtown gun killings, but a Newtown-scale death toll occurs roughly every four months on the South side of Chicago while hardly seeming to command special attention, much less rank as a major consideration in the case for gun control. Gun deaths in the ghetto, even of young teenagers, have to a disturbing degree been largely normalized. This is the real problem of race and gun crime. 

Gun deaths in the ghetto can and do still make the news, particularly when very young children die in gunfire or when the gun crime has salacious qualities. But I do not discern the same kind of public or political response. The collective sense of outrage and shock that followed events in Aurora or Newtown seems notably absent following gun deaths in the ghetto. Embedded in that normalization is an implicit assignment of differential blame: It’s their own fault in the ghetto, isn’t it? After all, they don’t have strong family structures in those communities, and it is largely black-on-black crime anyway, is it not?