It is different being black in America. Nowhere is this more evident than in law enforcement’s response to the armed militiamen held up in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Compare how they are treated to the violent, militarized responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. Unarmed black activists were fired upon, teargased, intimidated with military hardware, arrested and physically assaulted by local and state policemen. Andy Bundy and his armed cohorts in Oregon are inviting armed conflict and law enforcement merely pleads with them to relinquish the facility. White lives matter.
Is law enforcement aware of the message it sends citizens of color? As more whites arm themselves, care is taken by law enforcement personnel not to initiate gunfire on them. The image of federal officers shooting armed white men is too politically volatile. Be reminded that Andy Bundy’s militiamen previously challenged the federal government at the barrel of a gun when his father Clive Bundy was about to be arrested for violating grazing rights on federal lands in Nevada. Nowhere in the 1st Amendment’s Freedom of Assembly clause are guns mentioned.
More than 30,000 people die annually from gun violence in America, the highest rate in the world. Yet, the NRA and its allies continue to advocate for more gun ownership (300 million nationally) while feeding the myth that the President wants to take guns. The 2nd Amendment, like all 27 constitutional amendments, has reasonable limits. Gun violence is not limited to poor neighborhoods where people of color live. Last year, a newswoman and her cameraman were killed on the air. The litany of deaths in black neighborhoods and the concomitant police misconduct remind people of color that black life is cheap. Conversely, the lives of armed white men are never in jeopardy even when facing down the police.
The standoff in Oregon is teaching new generations the parameters of racial difference. White youth and young adults are learning that walking around armed in public spaces – a Wild West practice – is a white privilege. The University of Texas has approved the carrying of weapons on campus. Forty-two states have approved some form of open carry laws. Why people who live in the least violent neighborhoods feel so endangered that they not only need to carry weapons but display them is beyond reason. Interestingly, blacks and Latinos who live in violent urban centers do not advocate openly carrying weapons.
The schizophrenic responses of law enforcement to white and black people shows bias. We have advanced but racism still pervades every aspect of American culture. The callous loss of black life at the hands of law enforcement is merely one of many examples. Black folks are given higher interest rates on mortgages and car purchases. Blacks receive more severe sentences in the criminal justice system. Blacks receive the lowest quality of education in urban school districts. Black children are three to four times more likely to be suspended or expelled from schools. How many other Sandra Bland-like motorists are there whose traffic stops ended in violent arrests and criminal charges? All of this on the heels of Charleston Emanuel AME Church shootings and the controversy over a Confederate flag.
If America wants to be a paragon of national excellence in the world, it cannot challenge Korea or China on human rights violations and racial disparities. It’s different being black in America. Race matters when armed white man are “asked” to leave and unarmed blacks are compelled with gunfire. I guess black protestors should rename themselves “militias” and bring guns to protest rallies.
Jeffrey Dean Swain, Ph.D., is Dean of Campus Ministry at Florida Memorial University and author of six books on the African Diaspora experience in America.