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Guns and the Ecology of Fear

January 29, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Current Events, Devon G. Pena, Politics

Challenging the Symbolic Politics of Hate

by Devon G. Peña

The ongoing debate on gun violence is certainly long overdue. As it unfolds within the mainstream media, it also strikes me as a discourse filled with revealing blind spots and shameful silences.

Blind spots and silences in the gun control debate

Let me start with some of the blind spots: Largely absent in this discussion is the fact that the majority of victims of gun violence are poor or persons of color. It is seldom noted that young black men are constantly under assault every time they step out, especially in any state like Florida with a “stand your ground” statute. It is seldom mentioned that young black and Latino males are already targeted by white men who can concoct any unfounded allegation of “feeling threatened” to justify shooting these young men.

It does not help matters that many of these killings are at the hands of the police. Silence surrounds the problem of police violence against people of color yet it has long been endemic. Proposals to put armed guards and police in schools will certainly not make the parents of black or brown students feel any safer since many school authorities have been sued and held in contempt for blatant racial profiling and harassment of students of color.

In a December 23 blog entry, I made an observation that all the victims in the horrific Newtown massacre were white and middle class. I also noted that violence against children is as old as the founding of this settler nation as witnessed by the hundreds of Native American youth murdered by white settlers and their advancing army troops to say nothing of the millions who perished under genocidal policies and soul-crushing displacement.

No one cared much about violence then. It is only when violence affects white middle class communities that we seem able to grab the attention of the media or to transform public attitudes.  Where was the public outrage when white vigilantes set fire to black churches and homes and in the ensuring conflagrations killed young black children? No one seemed to protest much when armed militia activists invaded a home in Arizona and murdered an innocent father and his nine-year old daughter, Brisenia Flores.  These are the shameful silences I am referring to and lead me to wonder: Had the children murdered at Sandy Hook been of some color other than white, would we be seeing as dramatic a shift in public attitudes in favor of stricter gun control?

Shamefully, this nation usually sheds a lot of tears when a white child dies or is kidnapped. It is less empathetic when that child is black or brown. Studies of responses to “Amber Alerts” and news reporting on missing white compared to black children bear this out.

Why is there a racial divide in our nation’s ability to express grief when it comes to the murder of children and young people of color? Why do so many Americans assume that if a black male teenager gets shot and killed he probably deserved it or was engaged in something illegal and got what he deserved?

Recall how this was part of the narrative surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin. Where was the collective outrage over the murder of Jordan Davis, the gifted teenager who was shot by a white man, while he was sitting in the back seat of a car that the killer judged offensive and threatening because the music was too loud?

Is there a difference between a massacre of 26 that happens in one place at once and a massacre of 26 that takes a little over three weeks — sans media attention or public outcry — every three weeks? On average, one black male is shot dead by the police about once every 24-26 hours. Is that not a massacre, even if it happens more slowly? It this not also a systematic form of mass slaughter?

Gun culture, racism, and hatred of immigrants

One of the other issues that is overlooked in the current debate over stricter gun control is that very few people are making the connection between the role of race and how this gets played out in the context of another hotly contested issue — immigration.

I have been conducting research on racial violence for most of my 30+ years as a scholar and college teacher. One of the things that I have noticed, more recently, is a dramatically increasing level of white anxiety about becoming a racial minority. Also, this is clearly associated with a parallel increase in the rate of gun ownership among white persons. The Rachel Maddow Show recently displayed a graph showing the results of a current survey suggesting that nearly 82 percent of white households have guns compared to only about 30 percent of African American or Latino households. That is a fascinating and troubling statistic and one the media largely ignore.

While people of color are less likely to own guns, they are more likely to die from gunshots. How is this possible? Who is shooting at us? Are we really just killing ourselves off? I am aware that the majority of these gun-related deaths are associated with gang and drug trafficking conflicts but a growing number, I suspect, are young black or Latino men being shot by white men. This will only increase as white anxieties about the demographic transition increase and more states adopt the “stand your ground” laws — which are basically a legal open season on youth of color as the cases of Trayvon and Jordan sadly illustrate.

I am sure my critics will qualify this as a hyperbolic argument, but let us take a closer look at the current climate that clearly connects the gun culture with race and hatred of the other, in this case immigrants and more specifically, Mexican immigrants.

One thing I’ve noticed lately is that the websites covering NRA (National Rifle Association) meetings involve largely white and even nearly all-white audiences and participants. I’ve so far reviewed more than 500 on-line images of recent NRA meetings and the results are consistently the same: Photo after photo, no matter what state or region, shows the meetings are packed with white audiences — mostly men; most of them middle-aged or older. It is also my sense that these men are angry, scared, or both.

For several years now I have been writing about what I call the “ecology of fear” — a climate or environment in which fear of the ‘Other’ permeates the entire mainstream culture from media to architecture; from the juridical order to electronic border.

Part of the ecology of fear is that it drives those filled with fear toward hatred and violent responses. The old fight or flight response is more likely to go toward fight if you are well armed and you harbor resentiment and telluric passions.

This is evident in the activities that continue to characterize the mostly white militia organizations active in Arizona, California, and other border states. In Arizona, the so-called Cochise County Militia, which is apparently affiliated with the Minutemen Militia nation-wide organization, has been running an ad in a local newsletter in which it proudly announces, in capital letters:

VOLUNTEERS ARE NEEDED TO HUNT MEXICANS

MUST HAVE VERIFIED KILLS

NO BAG LIMIT ON THE MEXICAN BORDER

NO FEAR OF PROSECUTION

THIS IS ARIZONA

This is as blatantly hostile and racist a telluric ideological message as any I have ever read, and believe me, I have seen some crazy stuff browsing through the far right and white militia blogosphere and white supremacy websites that litter the Internet.

This message is technically inaccurate. It is not legal to hunt Mexicans down like wild animals, anywhere in the U.S. or Mexico. You cannot legally expect authorities will fail to prosecute you for such a murderous act. This is murder. Period.

However, in the current climate, it is quite possible that a murderous vigilante can get away with slaughtering innocent transborder migrants whose only crime is that they have entered without inspection in a desperate move to find work to feed their families. The fact that the militias feel comfortable making this sort of statement speaks to the banality of evil that is at the heart of the so-called gun culture.

If the average white gun owners indeed find these sorts of beliefs and messages repugnant, then they have a moral responsibility and political obligation to support serious efforts not just at gun control but to participate in a movement aiming to challenge and transform the deeper problem of racial hatred, which remains a venomous source that poisons all possibility of a peaceful and democratic future for an increasingly multiracial and multicultural society.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

1 Comments to “Guns and the Ecology of Fear”


  1. While I agree with your thesis and concern, I have some questions about the statistics you use to make your case.

    “On average, one black male is shot dead by the police about once every 24-26 hours.”

    The numbers I have from the Bureau of Justice Statistics for 2003-2009 for arrest-related deaths (including those categorized as homicide, suicide, intoxication, accident, natural causes and unknown) are 218 per year for Blacks and, of those, 134 are labeled homicide. Granted, some deaths in custody may be mislabeled, but the difference with your number is significant.

    “nearly 82 percent of white households have guns compared to only about 30 percent of African American or Latino households”

    I don’t know why you’d trust Rachel Maddow as a reliable source, but given that only 32% of American households have guns (Violence Policy Center, 2011), and a 2010 Gallop survey showed 44% White and 27% Black gun ownership, the 82% figure seems wildly off.

    “a growing number, I suspect, are young black or Latino men being shot by white men.”

    For a “scholar with 30+ years of research” on this issue, you seem to play a bit loose with the numbers, use unreliable sources, and substitute suspicions for valid analytical conclusions.

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