In Michigan recently, protesters openly carrying firearms waved American flags, Trump campaign banners and Confederate battle flags during their demonstration against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) covid-19 restrictions. Days later, black gun owners staged their own armed demonstration, escorting Rep. Sarah Anthony (D), a black state legislator, to her office on the Michigan Capitol grounds. And last Monday, armed members of the Michigan Home Guard — a self-styled “militia” group — assembled outside a barbershop that was reopening in defiance of Whitmer’s orders, intending to block any police officers who tried to shut the salon.
One of these events is not like the others, for reasons that go back to our country’s founding.
After the Revolutionary War, the second Militia Act of 1792 established that “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen” between 18 and 45 could be called up to the militia, where he would be expected to provide his own firearm for the common defense. When Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” in Dred Scott in 1856, Taney was explicit that those rights included the “the right … to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
Over many subsequent decades, we’ve settled into an uneasy pattern. Some white people use their guns to assert their broader political power, while many black Americans seek out firearms for self-protection, even knowing that they won’t be granted the same presumption of good faith should they use them.
Against a backdrop of Jim Crow discrimination and Ku Klux Klan terrorism, many black families armed themselves for individual and collective self-preservation. Thousands of lynchings enforced the code of white supremacy by grotesque example. Entire black villages and towns were burned in explosions of white rage.
Today, in states where “open carry” is legal, predominantly white gun rights protesters have been bringing firearms to rallies to oppose new gun restrictions such as those eventually signed into law in Virginia in April. While some may find such displays unnecessarily provocative, firearms there are at least relevant to the issue under debate.
But when the grievance with the government has little or nothing to do with gun laws, carrying guns unmistakably implies a threat of violence. To many black Americans, guns carried under the battle flag of the American Confederacy evoke an era of racial violence and intimidation.
By contrast, Michael Lynn Jr., the Lansing, Mich., firefighter who organized fellow black gun owners to provide a guard for Anthony, intended the display to be defensive. As he explained to local media: “I could hear the fear in her voice during that [anti-shutdown] protest. … We came out here today to make sure we could provide some protection.”
Lynn also wanted to affirm that “people of color can come out here with guns just the same as anybody else can.”
Polling data from Pew Research in 2017 showed that 24 percent of black adults reported owning guns, compared with 36 percent of whites. Gun ownership is more prevalent in rural areas, which tend to be far whiter than urban areas. However, news reports and anecdotal evidence suggest that black gun ownership may have increased since Donald Trump’s election in reaction to his racially antagonistic presidential campaign and public comments.
It’s clear that many white Americans view armed black people differently. Gov. Ronald Reagan signed California’s first significant gun control laws into law in 1967 after Black Panther Party members protested police brutality while armed. A police officer shot and killed John Crawford III while he was talking on his cellphone while holding a BB gun in a Walmart in 2014. In 2016, Philando Castile was fatally shot by an officer during a traffic stop because he responsibly told the officer that he was carrying a gun legally. And after unarmed runner Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in Georgia, some have pointed to a past gun arrest as if to imply that he posed a threat.
Black state representatives and recreational runners should not need to be armed to feel safe in our country. But if white gun owners continue to use their guns as weapons — both political and lethal — at the expense of black citizens, they shouldn’t be surprised when more black Americans exercise their rights to keep and bear arms.