Fifty years ago America redefined its social, political and cultural landscape by guaranteeing civil rights—and voting rights the following year—for all citizens, irrespective of race or background. A half-century later, too many young people of color, especially black boys and young men, are routine victims of gun violence.
And stemming this rising tide of gun violence is the civil rights issue of our time.
In the 21st century, mass shootings have become stunningly common, their frequency corresponding with the availability of guns nationally. From suburban enclaves to inner cities, rural America to Midwestern prairies, shooting sprees have tragically scarred high schools and colleges; movie theaters and malls; churches, synagogues and mosques. The media obsession with high-profile mass shootings means that ordinary gun-related murder no longer merits national attention.
Yet every day, gun violence is also literally destroying parts of the black community in America. Cities such as Chicago, Boston and Newark, N.J., face an epidemic of gun-related homicides that are overwhelmingly affecting black men. Street shootings in urban areas where black men and women are the victims have become so commonplace that they rarely make the news at all. Father’s Day weekend in Chicago saw two new gun-related deaths, including the killing of a 17-year-old boy, marking the Windy City as ground zero in an epidemic of shootings that would otherwise be treated as a national crisis if white Americans were being murdered at similar rates to black Americans.
In the aftermath of many of these tragedies, President Barack Obama has spoken eloquently about the need to strengthen gun control at the national level, and congressional failure on this score illustrates the power of the National Rifle Association-led gun lobby as well as the cowardice of contemporary politicians.
Grassroots organizations such as the Dream Defenders have responded by organizing community-based campaigns to halt the violence, and the heroic behind-the-scenes, block-by-block organizing capable of transforming communities and changing lives remains underfunded and, too often, unacknowledged.
Hypocrisy animates our discussion of gun violence. The proliferation of guns in poor neighborhoods across the nation is symptomatic of a larger crisis of American democracy, one in which rampant inequality is the norm and in which it’s easier to get access to guns than to a high-quality public school. Political conservatives hide behind the Constitution, brandishing a definition of the Second Amendment so broad as to suggest that every man, woman and child in the nation should carry a loaded 9 mm. From this perspective, the root cause of gun violence is not that too many Americans have guns but that not enough law-abiding citizens carry them. Certain states have bought into this warped logic, allowing patrons to bring loaded firearms into restaurants and public places.
Liberals bear a share of the failure in this discussion, too, with the racial dimension of liberal outrage seen in the gulf between media interest after a mass killing—in which the victims are mostly white and affluent—and after the everyday shooting deaths that occur in urban America.
Whether or not Americans are willing to admit it, black life has historically been valued less than white life. This was one of the chief reasons that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 50 summers ago this year, recruited white volunteers to go into Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Violence, and even murder, against black civil rights workers inspired little outrage. But the loss of white life proved enough to trigger national soul-searching.
Even as we celebrate important civil rights milestones this year, we betray the legacy of the movement—and fail to value black life—if we fail to take action toward ending gun violence.
The inability to admit that race matters in all facets of American life, even—especially—in debates over gun violence, cheapens our discourse over what is the most pressing civil rights issue of our day.
It is the most basic human right, the right to live, that is being taken away from the most vulnerable, poor and segregated part of the American family.
This daily loss of young black people’s lives to gun violence is a national tragedy. It is the most basic human right, the right to live, that is being taken away from the most vulnerable, poor and segregated part of the American family.
For people of color in America, racial poverty a half-century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act doesn’t just mean the added layer of being more likely to live in racially segregated neighborhoods, attend failing schools, be primed for prison, and have poor access to health care and social services.
It also means that you are more likely to be shot and killed by a gun.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the recently released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.