From Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine:

Police Violence, Social Justice, and Public Health

Acclaimed author and KPSOM guest speaker Carol Anderson explores the race-based roots of the Second Amendment

April 27, 2022

Carol Anderson

Carol Anderson

From police brutality to voting rights, from protests in the streets to controversy about critical race theory in the classroom, award-winning author and historian Carol Anderson, PhD, has been at the forefront of the ongoing national dialogue at the intersection of race and politics.

Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University, has written extensively about the ways racism affects how laws are enacted and enforced in the U.S. Among her acclaimed books are White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation's Divide; One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy; and the 2021 bestseller, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. As part of the KPSOM Speaker Series, Anderson recently gave a virtual talk titled, “A Conversation on Racism, Voting Rights, and the Second Amendment.” She also granted a brief interview to discuss her research on the racial origins of gun rights and their present-day implications for public health. The following is edited for clarity and length.

How did you decide to study the Second Amendment from the standpoint of race?

It started with the killing of Philando Castile [in 2016]. He was a Black man who was pulled over in Minnesota by the police. The police officer had asked him for his ID and, following NRA guidelines, Castile alerted the officer that he had a license to carry a weapon with him. He was reaching for his ID as the officer had asked, and the police officer then began shooting. Now, he's not brandishing the weapon, he's not threatening the officer, he's merely alerting him that he has a license to carry a weapon. And then the NRA went silent. So, you've got a licensed gun owner, who is gunned down for no other reason than he has a gun, and the NRA goes silent… And pundits began asking: "Don't African Americans have Second Amendment rights?" Well, as a rights scholar, that's what I study. I went, "Oh, this is one I haven't explored." And it took me back into the 17th century and that's where, seeing the evidence, my thesis began to unfold. Because what I saw was this palpable fear of Black people. The slave codes and the laws governing free Blacks were about keeping them disarmed, that they couldn't have access to weapons. This ongoing fear that Black folks would rise up, that there would be a revolution, that there would be retribution for the ways that African Americans had been treated in the U.S. That if they had access to weapons, they would slaughter whites. And so, embedded in our Bill of Rights, basically, is the right to contain and control Black people's rights, to deny those rights via the militia.

What part does the Second Amendment play now in the movement to end police violence against African Americans?

I think that part of what we're seeing is that a narrative has really gripped this society, where the Second Amendment is the holy grail of citizenship. And the Second Amendment is basically a white-only element of the constitution. Reuters did a harrowing analysis of the threats coming in to election workers and poll workers during the 2020 election. And repeatedly, folks were saying, “I'm going to use my Second Amendment rights to get our country back. This election was stolen. I'm using my 2A rights.” And the anger is that Black folks had the audacity to come out and vote and they had the audacity to not vote in mass for a white supremacist.

Photo illustration of books by author Carol Anderson

Photo illustration of books by author Carol Anderson

You’ve written extensively about the cumulative effect that the killing of unarmed African Americans, including Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, George Floyd, and others, have had in dehumanizing Black lives.  Can you elaborate?

Think about Dylann Roof. Dylann Roof, who killed nine people during a Bible study. When the police rolled up on him, they didn't shoot him dead. They arrested him; he said he was hungry [and] they made sure he got a sandwich from Burger King. They recognized his humanity. When Kyle Rittenhouse goes into Kenosha, Wisconsin with an illegally obtained AR15, the police see a white kid with a rifle and they welcome him. "It's hot out here. You want some water?" Rittenhouse then goes and he guns down three people, killing two. He walks back towards the cops with his hands up as if to surrender, and they go right by him. They don't see the threat. But Tamir Rice, who was the twelve-year-old boy in Cleveland... The police rolled up on Tamir Rice playing by himself in the park with this gun, a toy gun, and within two seconds they shot him down. Two seconds. And what [the officer] said was, "Well, we feared for our lives. He was a threat. He was dangerous."

It has been argued that police brutality and gun violence are public health crises. What advice would you give those who study, teach, and practice medicine to help confront this problem?

To be very vocal that this is a public health crisis, [and] to advocate for scientific studies on gun violence. Because one of the things that the NRA did was to lobby really hard and block the NIH [National Institute of Health] from funding research on gun violence. And also, to really deploy the critical thinking skills when we hear the narrative of “rising crime, rising crime, rising crime.” Police budgets are huge. They haven't brought about the kind of safety that's supposed to happen. So, it means that we need to really rethink what real safety and security looks like in our communities. It means that police should not be deployed to every situation. I mean, there are times when mental health professionals are needed, there are times when domestic violence counselors are needed, there are multiple ways where we can really intervene to provide support and help that does not require us having somebody in there who immediately sees Black, sees a threat, and shoots.