mass shootings, gun reform, and the white man’s burden

August 5, 2019

In October 2016, I stood in the middle of a camp being raided by police in Standing Rock and watched as white men dragged indigenous people out of teepees, shot rubber bullets into crowds, and forced indigenous elders to watch as their sacred land was bulldozed. In this bedlam, I realized that white supremacy only reforms and repeats itself in America. We, the oppressed, are simply attempting to survive the white man’s burden, a fever dream of his colonized subjects gone awry.

Over the past weekend, two mass shootings occurred within 13 hours of each other, resulting in 34 deaths, and dozens of injuries. Once again, the news cycle is alive with debate about what kind of gun reform should occur, whether the attacks were motivated by some racial or xenophobic views, and if mental illness should be a focal point. For many people in the United States, especially Black folks and heavily policed minority groups, these shootings are simply a manifestation of white supremacy and the violence encoded in the hypocrisy of the white man’s burden.

As a native Ohioan, the recent shooting in Dayton is jarring, but still operates as a manifestation of our state’s and nation’s politics. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Ohio became an important political target for both political parties and this brought the 2016 Republican National Convention to Cleveland, which the city hoped would bolster business. Instead the convention led to the city spending $20 million on weaponry/equipment to deter protests, predatory policing practices (like the FBI knocking on doors of local activists to threaten them and monitoring activists online), and one of 18 people arrested on a single July 2016 day winning a $50,000 settlement in a lawsuit against the city.

Consider also what has gone on around Ohio this past year alone: Patriot Front, a group that advocates for a white ethno-state, hung flyers around Circleville, a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. Members of the Columbus PD have been exposed for joking online about bringing explosives to anti-police brutality protests. The department had its “moral crimes” vice unit disbanded following an array of accusations, including that one officer, Andrew Mitchell, kidnapping and raping local women, and pinned the murder of a 16 year old black teen, Julius Tate Jr, on his 17 year old girlfriend. A recent Trump presidential campaign stop in Cincinnati led to one of his supporters being arrested after assaulting an anti-Trump protestor on camera. Even more illuminating is the fact that a KKK rally occurred in Dayton, Ohio just months ago and cost the city $650,000.

In 1899, Rudyard Kipling published The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippines Islands, a poem that justified the colonization of the Philippines by effectively stating that it is white people’s burden to colonize non-white people. In an America built on genocide and slave labor, we should view these mass shootings for what they are — the materialization of the white man’s burden to protect an America that he has created, by killing anyone that threatens it. From this historical framework, both police and white mass shooters share the white man’s burden: upholding a racist hierarchy, defending the notion that white society gets to dictate what is violence or criminalized, and enacting public displays of violence motivated by xenophobia or racism. 

This reality is why calls for gun reform will never be enough to dissuade white supremacist violence. Mass shooters may have less access to weapons after gun reform laws are potentially  passed, yet the police will still operate with free reign to terrorize Black, Brown, and poor communities. While white “lone wolves” commit violence kill to create an ethnostate, police departments across the country kill under the guise of law and order in a racist society. The Black Panther Party’s model of community self-defense (with guns and its Ten Point Program) scared White America so much that it enacted gun control legislation to quell the Black Power Movement; further proving that gun reform has historically operated to disenfranchise non-whites and uphold white supremacy. 

The horrors of America’s white supremacy are not unknown to me and my black body in America. I witnessed these horrors in Standing Rock. A resident from my college town was one of the many hit by the car that plowed through a crowd during the Charlottesville protests. When I attend demonstrations, I am both wary of how brutally the police may crack down on protestors and what “lone wolves” are capable of. 

In the end, I know that we will never be truly liberated until we build movements that go beyond gun reform, or remedying the effects of white supremacy. If background checks are proposed for those that want to own firearms, then police should be subjected to background checks for ties to white supremacist organizations, or for domestic violence. The struggle to end mass shootings must have a foundational critique of white supremacy and policing. Otherwise, it plays into the same trap of empowering the very institutions that mass shooters model their violence on.