What if the ‘gun debate’ is, fundamentally, a confusion?

Bee_A1-536x409Or, America doesn’t have a gun problem, it has a race problem.

Over the last few days, in response to the shooting deaths of a Virginia news team consisting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, a familiar cycle of debate has occupied news media and, if my own feed is any anecdotal indication, social media as well; the ‘gun debate.’ Columnist Nicholas Krystoff, for instance, reminds us that “more Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.” Given such an ‘epidemic’ of gun-related deaths, one more-or-less unique to American society, it seems crucial to determine how, exactly one might reduce this figure. The form this debate has taken in the last several decades of American political theater should familiar enough to readers that I don’t need to rehearse more than the basic arguments here. Either–the story goes–the solution to the ‘gun problem’ lies in some form of increased regulation of access to guns, or it lies in distributing guns broadly enough to dissuade shooters from risking reciprocation. And so, invariably, the question is framed in terms of the appropriate form and level of ‘gun control:’ are there any, and if so what are the correct, limits to be placed on the ability to access guns? Presumably, mental health, the existence of a criminal record, etc. are common indices that such controls could be framed around. I want to suggest, however, that this approach to the question of gun violence in America is fundamentally confused, no matter which ‘side’ of the debate one occupies. It should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of American society that gun violence itself simply indexes other antagonisms that structure American society. And, I want to suggest, it indexes one antagonism particularly directly: white supremacy, or, antiblackness. If this is in fact the case, then it follows that to frame the problem in terms of ‘guns’ is to reify the index at the expense of the antagonisms indexed. Without attempting to offer a comprehensive model or account of the racialization of American gun issues, I want to offer a few brief indicators that any analysis of gun deaths in America that presumes to actually address the problem needs to move away from the question of ‘gun control’ or its inverse ‘gun rights’ and directly address questions of antiblackness.

1. First of all, one cannot forget that the question of race is always tied directly into the history of ‘gun control’ debates. From the explicit framing of the Dred Scott decision in terms of keeping firearms out of black hands,1  to gun control’s place at the forefront of the KKK’s early agenda (culminating, notably, in the institution of the Black Codes), the early history of gun control in the United states is more-or-less explicitly the history of the disarmament of black Americans. One cannot forget, for instance, that the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968 was viable in large part as a response to the Black Panther party’s open-carry occupation of the California legislature in response to California’s own Mulford Act of 1967, which was explicitly framed to disarm the Panthers in the face of the police. If the history of the ‘gun control’ lobby is tied up with antiblackness however, it is not the case that, conversely, the emergence of an organized ‘gun rights’ lobby has been any less tied to this history of antiblackness. Gun shows, of course, are one of the most consistent places one can go to find far-right, explicitly racist organizations recruiting. Further, even the rhetoric of more mainstream conservative gun advocates relies on a barely concealed specter of racialized criminality for intelligibility. Homeowners should have guns because, after all, the ‘criminals’ will always-already have them, and homeowners should be prepared to defend themselves from criminal (read: black) interlopers.

2. Secondly, there’s the transparent disconnect between the incidents of gun violence that ‘bring up’ the gun control question, and those that make up the sorts of alarming statistics that Krystoff draws attention to. The perpetrators of the sorts of randomized mass shootings that make up the news cycle, after all, overwhelmingly take the form of young, white men. And yet, the faces on both sides of the figures Krystoff cites are overwhelmingly black. The difference in both kind and degree between these subsets of gun violence raises a host of racialized questions. What is it, exactly, that makes white men far more likely than any other group to take life indiscriminately when they feel slighted? Why is it that black Americans die of gun violence at such staggering per capita rates? (Blacks, for instance, accounted for 55% of deaths at the end of a gun in 2010, but only 13% of the overall population) To answer these questions would require asking about the conditions that connect blacks in America overwhelmingly to intractable poverty, poverty to violence, etc. It would require asking questions about white power and entitlement. It would require examining a whole host of questions that have nothing to do with guns per se.

3. Finally, taken together, these two indicators point towards possible explanations for the statistical confusion that underlies both sides of the gun debate. Advocates for both increased controls on gun purchases and for deregulation of gun ownership can smugly point to statistics that seem to indicate that their position, and the narratives that undergird it, more satisfactorily explain and can deal with the realities of American gun violence. Both sides would claim that these massive statistical variances can be explained by flaws in the research methodology of the ‘opposing’ side. But what if there’s a simpler explanation for the wide, almost random-seeming divergences between rates of gun violence and national gun policy? What if the factors effected by gun control legislations are more or less exogenous to the causes of gun violence in America? What if the only way to address ‘gun violence’ in America is not to address guns at all, but to address the ongoing operation of antiblackness in the structure of American society?

1.”For if [the protections of the Bill of Rights] were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police […] It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, […] to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

On the Uselessness of Bodies

In his essay “On Religious Illusions,” Raymond Geuss draws parallels between the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School and religion on the grounds of what Geuss sees as their shared relationship to the Enlightenment, broadly conceived. Namely, the regime of Enlightenment thought has given a certain disproportionate weight to the concept of “usefulness” when it comes to the evaluation of claims. This should not be confused with utilitarianism, for empirical facts can be useful in a non-utilitarian sense—though Geuss’s point is perhaps especially true in the case of utilitarians.

Geuss argues that for people like Horkheimer and Adorno, this intense focus on the instrumentality not only objects and ideas but action as well is part of the problematic logic of capital. The Enlightenment has made two critical errors: A sharp distinction between what is instrumentally useful and that which is inherently valuable; the development of criteria for the rationality of instrumental action (i.e. that which is guided by instrumentally useful empirical facts). There is no criteria given, however, for judging that which is purported to be inherently valuable, or for the rationality for action that is done for its own sake. A truly free society, says Geuss of Adorno, would reject this distinction between instrumentality and inherent value as having no purchase in reality.

In other words, the inherently valuable is useless on the view of the Enlightenment according to Geuss’s reading of the Frankfurt School critique. The path to resisting this ideology is not to then become useful, but to remain useless in order to disrupt the system. In other words, for Horkheimer and Adorno, religion’s uselessness is actually its greatest advantage. Geuss writes:

Religion does not fit into the modern world of universal functionality, and thus could, under some circumstances, become a bulwark against the closed world of bureaucratic domination which resulted from the full realization of the Enlightenment project, that is, against what Adorno called “the administered world.”

Of course, for Adorno, this sort of uselessness-against-administration can’t simply be uselessness as such—or any-old-uselessness. It must “instantiate an autonomous configuration of meaningfulness and value, and also effectively resist and maintain itself against the infinite ability of our society to assimilate and co-opt deviancy.” In other words, the truly useless must eschew all attempts by the logic of the capital-instrumental complex to reify it and thereby neutralize its threat.

On whether or not religion can accomplish this, Geuss is extremely doubtful. But his disdain for religion, I think covers over too quickly the radical potential this view has for reading other structures of domination, especially those in which economy and race, or economy and sexuality (or all of the above) are tied together.

This post is titled “On the Uselessness of Bodies” because as I was reading Geuss’s essay, I was struck by how quickly he connects action and what he calls “the metaphysical need” (i.e. religion) such that inherently valuable action is always a response to some kind of ideational desire. This is, I think, an ironically Protestant oversight on his part (the starkly anti-materialist activity of religion). As such, any consideration of bodies is thoroughly omitted from the discussion. But I think there is a strong sense in which we can use the concept of uselessness to read the treatment of bodies of color under white capitalism. Consider the rhetoric of most white conservatives on questions of the relationship between bodies of color and poverty: Laziness, entitlement, etc. In other words, useless. The rhetoric in response to the rioting in Baltimore, Ferguson, and the other protests around the country is similar: Riots accomplish nothing; the protests prevent hard working [useful] people from getting to their jobs, etc.

Geuss writes, “To be really useless is not simply to drop out of the society completely into the underclass of delinquents, deviants, terrorists, or the long-term unemployed.” The problem is that this too misses what it means for bodies as opposed to action to be useless. Impoverished black bodies, or other impoverished bodies of color, defy the white capitalist complex not because their action is merely inherently valuable as opposed to instrumentally useful. It is rather because their bodies themselves are not instrumentally useful and therefore not valuable. Inherent value plays a different role in the status of bodies in this reading of uselessness. Bodies are perhaps one of the only things in the logic of capital today whose value extends beyond utility/commodity as long as they’re white. White bodies are inherently valuable. Bodies of color are thus useless in the double sense of being neither inherently valuable nor instrumentally useful.

To take this reading of bodies via uselessness to its full conclusion, however, entails that these bodies remain useless since the demand of human flourishing, according to the Critical Theory, is not to fix the current system but to overhaul it completely. This is the logic of riots over against the logic of the current system which demands that people destroyed by it work within it for change. It is for that reason that people of color and those in solidarity with them must riot and protest. They must remain useless to the current system, because it is only in this uselessness that there can be any radical hope for a different future.

Injustice Anxiety: How Progressive Christians Have Become Their Own Worst Enemy

A couple months ago, my wife and I attended a theatrical performance given at Northwestern’s law school, which detailed the history of violence and systemic injustice in Chicago. It was an incredibly moving and powerful performance. Afterward, the director of diversity and inclusion programs for Northwestern moderated a time of response from the audience. One of the comments that struck me the hardest was given by a young white woman. She began by telling everyone she was a social worker and a justice advocate but then complained that whenever she has been involved in justice initiatives whether protests, attending council meetings, etc., her ideas are rarely taken into consideration. She was calling on minorities to be more open to white folks who just want to help. I was fuming in my seat but was amazed by the response of grace and patience that came from those who responded. The common thread was something like this: You have to earn the trust of these communities in order to participate. It doesn’t matter what knowledge or degrees you have. Even your righteous indignation at injustice doesn’t matter. You have been part of something that has systematically destroyed bodies of color in this country, and the first steps are to recognize that, accept the discomfort it is going to bring, and then, just be present. Presence is important, and trust will follow. But it takes time.

That was a huge step for me in learning to let go of my own anxieties over being an advocate for social justice. As a white, cis-gendered male who does not have any of the experiences of oppressed groups in this country, I have often worried about making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, thinking the wrong way. But over the last couple years with the help of voices like the ones I heard that night, I’ve come to realize that my problem was that, like that young woman, I was still making the issues about me–i.e. my fears and anxieties. Being an advocate means letting go of the fact that I’m a white, cis-gendered male, that I’m not going to be fully trusted as an advocate right away, and that my job at first is to just be present.

It seems that this is a message that much of “progressive Christianity” still needs to hear. Last summer, I wrote about my discovery of an ultra-conservative Christian blogger who was using the language of progressive Christianity against progressives themselves to try to argue that progressivism is cold, rigid, ideological, and just plain not fun. This morning, I’ve discovered that a number of progressive Christians have been wringing their hands over the exact same thing: They feel that progressive Christianity has become a purity culture where those who do not match ideologically are rejected much in the way that conservative Christians reject those they consider hedonistic.

This is a particularly attractive point of view especially for those who originally came from conservative backgrounds but now find themselves taking on a more progressive stance on political and theological issues. If you scroll down the comments of the culture of purity blog, you’ll notice Rachel Held Evans praising the author for articulating something she’s felt for a long time: that there’s a problem with the “everything is problematic” point of view. It’s not that surprising that a more conservative progressive like RHE would feel that way. On the one hand, one of the primary reasons that conservatives leave for more progressive pastures is the fact that the former has too many legalistic rules. They’re looking to “get away” from religion in order to find Jesus. So when what they thought was good ol’ free thinking progressivism starts telling them they have to think certain ways about political and social issues, they want to retreat back to somewhere in the middle.

On the other hand, that retreat back to the middle isn’t only about an aversion to rules. It’s also an aversion to the kind of politics that a truly progressive Christianity requires. This political aversion is also multi-faceted. It includes a desire to purify Christianity from politics, claiming that Jesus’ original message was not political in nature or decrying the merger of either Republican or Democratic politics with Christianity. But it’s also a fear that this connection between politics and Christianity will bring to the surface the very thing they’ve tried to repress: Their discomfort with minority groups. That isn’t necessarily their fault. It takes a lot of work to overcome the ways of viewing the world that we’ve been taught from a young age. But progressive Christianity is a demand to overcome those things.

Actually, Christianity is a demand to overcome those things. Therein lies the rub of this rejection of “progressive purity culture.” Forget the fact that “purity” is the wrong word or that neither progressive Christianity nor social justice movements need resemble anarchistic Marxism in order to be progressive and effective. This is about what the author calls complicity in injustice which he characterizes as the “idol” of progressive Christians. The heart of this complaint–like the heart of the ultra-conservative complaint against the same thing–is that progressive politics makes people feel bad about themselves, specifically white, cis-gendered male people. But once you’re a Christian, how you feel no longer matters. That’s why you become a Christian–so you can die to self and take up the cross. If we just did whatever we felt like doing, intentionally becoming part of Christianity (or any religion) wouldn’t mean anything at all. Social justice isn’t about you and your feelings. The demand for inclusive language, for highlighting passive complicity in systems of injustice, for a radical commitment to social justice is not about maintaining an ideologically pure progressive culture.

The commitment to rooting out those things is about standing in solidarity with the victims of systemic injustice who do not have the luxury to ruminate over which of their oppressors they might offend in fighting to tear down those systems.

When this middle group of Christians makes issues of systemic injustice about themselves by pointing out that they feel bad when someone says they’re complicit in systemic injustice, that they’ve made a mistake, are thinking about something in a problematic way, should maybe just shut their mouth and listen for once, they have completely missed the point of the gospel’s call to serve the least of these–i.e. those who are threatened by systemic injustice. Is it going to be difficult to answer that call? Are you going to be faced with all the uncomfortable things I just listed? Yes. But that call is not about you–it’s about helping those under the threat of systemic injustice and listening to what they need.

It is not about you.

Ultimately, I think this is an issue of liberal verses non-liberal (e.g. radical) progressivism. I mean these terms in the political rather than theological sense. In other words, those who see themselves as outside of the walls of both progressivism and conservativism are beholden to a liberal politics which wants to claim a neutral ground on these sorts of contentious political issues. It’s a ground of natural rights, of complete “gospel freedom,” which is really just old fashioned liberal, Enlightenment freedom: “We’re all human beings”; “We’re called to love and care for everyone“; “Everyone has universal human rights,” etc. The problem is that these platitudes generate ways of thinking that tend to perpetuate current systems of oppression. In this case, they’re used as excuses to not go all in on advocacy because we might marginalize the oppressors whom, in the context of this liberal worldview, Jesus also calls us to love, care for, and forgive.

However, that’s not clear at all in the gospels. At no point does Jesus chastise the Pharisees and then turn back to them later and say, “Don’t worry you guys. As I’m radically turning your religio-political world upside down, I’ll make sure you feel cared for.” That doesn’t mean, however, that we can say Jesus likely didn’t care at all about what the Pharisees thought. On the contrary, he’s constantly charging them to change their minds and fix the system! After all, they’re the ones with the ability to do it. Similarly, the critique of liberal human rights discourse and/or middle Christian care for everyone discourse doesn’t mean we’re forced to fundamentally devalue the life of some human beings for the sake of others. That’s a false dichotomy. Honestly, how are the poor and oppressed any threat at all to the lives of those in power as long as the system keeping them there remains in tact? They’re no threat at all.

This complaint is a matter of seeing ourselves as the savior of those in need. It is not on us to solve the problems of minorities, the poor, or oppressed. But it is our responsibility to stand and be present with those who are seeking justice. If you feel excluded by that, then maybe some self-reflection is in order. Begin by understanding that working toward ending systemic injustice is not about you and your feelings.

PSA: White People Have Privilege and Paula Deen Shows Us Why

The train wreck that is now Paula Deen’s career has been smattered all over the news and everyone’s Facebook feeds the last few days. I just want to point out an important take away for all the white people who may be following it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read excerpts of the deposition that started the firestorm here.

Let’s get one thing straight off the bat. There is no context, there is no way to interpret, there is no place that would make anything she says in the deposition okay. None of that is okay–ever. I think most people are on the same page about that, hence the firestorm.

Her statements about jokes, however, really get to the heart of a very important issue. (The bold is the attorney asking the questions and the normal type is Deen’s responses):

What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that’s got —

It’s just what they are, they’re jokes.

Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?

That’s — that’s kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the joke, I don’t know. I can’t — I don’t know.


They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know — I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.

Okay, well —

I can feel out that person pretty good on what would offend them, but I’m not sure…what — what the question even means.

Only someone in a position of power could attempt to justify derogatory jokes or comments by claiming they affect them just like everyone else (she mentions “straights” and “rednecks” twice, though I’m only assuming that she would put herself in that latter “category.”) Those sorts of jokes don’t typically bother white people, seem completely harmless, because the vast majority of white people in this country have never been on the receiving end of systemic oppression, negative racial profiling, etc. that these sorts of jokes and comments tend to highlight. That is, white people have a particular unspoken privilege that allows people like Paula Deen to wrestle with the ethics of telling off color jokes or to fantasize about slave-staffed dinner parties or to justify using the “N-word” under certain circumstances, which white people dictate.

And I’m not going to insult the intelligence of Deen or any other older white Southerner by saying, “Well, they grew up in a different era, so I’ll forgive the fact that they’re a little racist.” They live in this era, and I know that there are plenty of older white folks who grew up in the South who are totally outraged by Deen and her comments. They’re just not excusable, and they confront us directly with the reality of white privilege in this country.

**Addendum: 6.25.2013**

I don’t like editing posts since I think blogs should be a crystalization of the writer’s thoughts at a given time, but through a conversation with someone about this issue, I thought it really important to add a note about the public outrage, Food Network’s firing, and the buzz that others who have contracts with Deen are considering breaking ties. I think I made it sound like that since everyone is more or less onboard with her comments being racist, the outrage alone is justified. However, I should mention that this public “execution” of Deen is really nothing more than a pseudo-action which allows the white public and Food Network, et. al. to disavow their own secret racist attitudes.

That isn’t a conspiracy theory. In psychoanalysis, this is called fetish disavowal (see Lacan and Zizek.) People hold all sorts of “closeted” negative attitudes or secret desires–that shouldn’t be a revelation. Casual racism among white folks is probably one of the most pervasive in our country. It goes as an unwritten rule that you don’t name that racism explicitly (i.e. you don’t talk in public about black children tap dancing for your entertainment, whether seriously or in jest.) As soon as it is named, people are confronted with their own similar attitudes and are forced to condemn and condemn strongly. Plausible deniability is impossible once the unwritten rule is named. This is what I meant by the last sentence of the original post.

So the outrage allows us to demonstrate that it’s not us but someone else, while still maintaining the casual racism we want to continue participating in (i.e. enjoying shows like Game of Thrones or Madmen, telling jokes, etc.) It’s uncomfortable to think that some of the things we enjoy are actually part of the problem, and scapegoating Deen helps us cope with that instead of using the situation as an opportunity to exercise our own racist demons.