Time to Remove Race From Gun Debate

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?

It is true that far too high a number of young African Americans, particularly young men, die in gun violence involving other African Americans. That circumstance bespeaks a tragic confluence of conditions, conditions illuminated not much at all by speaking of "black-on-black crime" or even of broken families and absentee fathers. Closer to the root core of the Chicago gun-violence problem one will find uniquely acute levels of joblessness and poverty, long-segregated neighborhoods, the easy availability of guns in America and the trade in illegal drugs. In short, borrowing the lexicon of sociologists, there are major structural causes of disproportionate black male involvement in gun crime.


Saying this does not absolve the perpetrators of gun violence of one ounce of responsibility for their criminal actions. Just like white and affluent communities, black and poor communities deserve to be free of the scourge of gun violence. Society should respond firmly and strongly to violence wherever it occurs. To say structure matters is not to deny moral and legal culpability for bad actions.

But, to stress how structure matters should change the discourse for us. In America, we typically carry on an unfortunately lopsided emphasis on individual choice as the principle factors behind urban gun violence; that bias is what is in need of realignment. Culture, human agency and the like are hardly the central factors here. To be sure, it does take a human actor to pull the trigger of a gun. Yes. But it also takes a deep and profound breakdown in the bonds of civility and mutual human obligation that characterize our communities in order to produce 443 gun deaths — 65 of whom were 18 or younger — in a city the size of Chicago in one year, which is what happened in 2012. 


Such a fissure in the social fabric is not merely the product of isolated bad actors. It results, instead, from the debilitating mix of persistent high unemployment and poverty and the indifferent gaze of a broader society, both of which reflect a legacy of segregation in housing and racism. Yes, with economic hardship comes the correlated difficulties of maintaining stable family units, of parental supervision of children and of putting a focus on education and self-reliance. When you add to such a fragile mix easy access to guns, as we have here in America, and the financial allure of the trade in illegal drugs, you have a more complete sense of the forces sustaining high levels of gun violence in poor unban communities.

The gun violence in Chicago should indeed be part of the discussion propelling gun-control reform. It should be because it, too — like Newtown, Aurora, and Columbine (and too many other places) — involves a needlessly high toll of gun deaths. This is not a "black-on-black crime" issue (indeed the phrase probably needs to disappear as it is so fraught and inapposite). The challenge here is not how to bring "race" into the discussion, but how to match the outsized and destructive power of the National Rifle Association and the gun and ammunition manufacturers in our national politics.


Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.