Essay: My Privilege, Our Problem
An award-winning author watches from afar as his hometown unravels, and can’t help but remember the times growing up on Charlotte’s west side when his skin color helped keep him safe
By DAVID JOY
People gathered in Marshall Park Wednesday evening for a rally in the wake of the shooting death of Keith Scott.
RIGHT THIS SECOND, I’m sitting within reach of six firearms. In a few minutes, when I get up to go to the grocery store, there will be a loaded 9mm pistol openly carried on the seat beside me. If I’m pulled over by law enforcement for running a stop sign or a busted taillight or speeding, I believe that the officer will see the weapon, will discuss how to proceed in a manner that he or she feels safe, will tell me why I’ve been pulled over, and, following that conversation, I’ll drive down the road.
If you want to know why I’m not scared it’s because I’m white. It’s because I’ve witnessed these scenarios time and time again and always come out unscathed. One time when I was 18 years old walking down the side of Wilkinson Boulevard, I was put on the ground at gunpoint by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police with a K-9 unit’s hot, dog breath snarling against my face, and there’s not a bullet hole in my body to show for it. Another time, I was in a car filled with enough marijuana smoke to barbecue a pig with two of my black friends, and when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police came to the window, both of my friends were put in handcuffs while I was left to stand by the front bumper of my truck. That is white privilege, and it sickens me to know that about myself, to know that I’m inherently safer when approached by law enforcement because the color of my skin.
If it bleeds it leads has long been the unspoken rule of the American media, and in the past few years, as that commandment has become more disturbingly and debilitatingly clear, I’ve found it easier to just look away. It’s easier to do that than to face what’s become of this nation.
But as violence erupted in the streets of my hometown of Charlotte this week, I couldn’t avert my eyes. This wasn’t some place where I’d never been. I knew the streets where the tear gas fell, just as I knew the officers who stood there in riot gear and gas masks, and just as I knew the angered community members who destroyed police cruisers and set fires on Interstate 85 because they didn’t know anywhere else to punch. I watched anxiously from my house in the mountains with tears in my eyes, and though I am not a religious man, I prayed for the safety of everyone there because I knew them.
I grew up where Freedom Drive dumps into “Tank Town” in the heart of Charlotte’s west side. White as cigarette paper, I was a minority at every school I attended, from elementary school at Tuckaseegee, where classmates sold weed; to middle school in Camp Greene at Spaugh, where I was robbed at gunpoint; to Harding University High School, where I once witnessed a rich white kid who’d been bussed across the city into Westerly Hills come outside on his lunch break to find the car his parents had bought him resting on cinderblocks, his 20-inch rims long gone and sold. I tell you all of this to say that I grew up knowing and experiencing not only a racial divide, but a line drawn by class across that city. There were the haves and the have-nots, us falling to the latter, so I always knew the criminality around me was a result of poverty not race. It came from having nothing. And still, I understood I was lucky to be born the color I was. Maybe we were all poor, but I had an advantage: a skin tone camouflaged from police profile. My mother, who also went to Harding, remembers cars being flipped and set on fire in the school parking lot during the late 1960s, and I came to realize that what some privileged people couldn’t understand was a group so broken down and angered by silence and injustice and oppression that all they could do was punch holes in the walls of their own neighborhood and hope to God someone listened.
Now this is a story that did not start and will not end with Keith Lamont Scott. What I know for sure is that he was 43 years old and a father of seven. What I’ve heard from one side is that he was sitting quietly in his car reading a book while he waited on one of his kids to get off the school bus, and that an undercover officer shot him to death for no reason. What I’ve heard from the other side is that when officers approached Keith, he jumped from the vehicle with gun in hand and was justifiably killed as officer Brentley Vinson protected his own life.
In the coming months, we’ll likely find that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And by then, I doubt it will make much of a difference, because all we, as a country, seem to care about is what side you’re on. Either you’re with us, or against us.
This past spring, President Obama made a speech in which he declared that, “When (we) become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis … when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations. It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and which are the source of America’s strength.”
He’s right in his concern. Months from now, when the truth of what happened to Scott comes to light, most people who remember the story will only remember what we’re hearing now. Either he was reading a book and shot needlessly, or he had a gun and was justifiably killed by police.
What bothers me is this: Whether he was reading a book or sitting in his car with a gun, whether the officer who shot him was white or black, Keith Lamont Scott should be alive and breathing and those seven children left behind should still have their father.
My family has been in North Carolina for centuries, settled around what became the city of Charlotte since the late 1600s. In this open-carry state, an 18-year-old can purchase an assault rifle and openly carry that weapon down Tyvola Road if he wants. And so long as he doesn’t pose a threat, he is within his legal rights to do so. In this open-carry state, a 21-year-old can walk into Hyatt Gun Shop to buy a handgun and openly carry that handgun right out the door, again, so long as it’s not in a threatening manner. This conversation is centered on the idea of “posing a threat,” and sadly, this is the difference. We need to recognize that in America in 2016—and yes, in Charlotte Tuesday afternoon—if you’re black then that in and of itself apparently warrants a threat. Case after case after case, the circumstances leading up to the shooting differ, but the result remains the same: African-American suspect shot dead. With a gun, without a gun, hands raised, hands down, fully compliant or running, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Holding a book, Scott shouldn’t have been killed. Holding an un-aimed gun in an open carry state, Scott shouldn’t have been killed. And even if he aimed the gun at police, even if we find out that Officer Vinson had no choice but to kill Scott, the outrage this city has seen from Scott’s death is a direct result from a lack of dialogue about the probability of the other two scenarios. Regardless, the polarizing nature of the argument fails to advance the conversation we need to be having as a country. What we need to talk about is why one group of citizens is broadly accepted to be less dangerous than another, why I, as a white man, can ride down the highway with a gun on my side and not worry that if I’m pulled over I’ll be killed, but know that if I was black that same scenario would end drastically different.
When I was a senior in high school I picked up a friend almost every morning from a dope house where cops sat in their patrol cars and watched his front door. My friend was constantly scared they’d put him in handcuffs and take him away. With a pocket full of pills and a blunt in the ashtray, I didn’t have a fear in this world. Two suspects, one white and one black, I don’t think those cops would’ve chased me if I ran. All these years later, older and no longer wild, I look back and wonder why. The minute we start having that discussion, what happened to Keith Lamont Scott and the dozens of others will start to make sense.
But until then, this is just one more body stretched between us.
David Joy is the author of the Edgar-nominated novel Where All Light Tends To Go, as well as the novel The Weight Of This World, forthcoming from Putnam Books in early 2017. He lives in Webster, North Carolina.
"The one thing a violent rapist deserves is to face is a good woman with a gun!" That was Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association, the standard bearers for America's gun lobby, making the case that personal firearms prevent rape.
The assertion that guns offer protection is a mantra the NRA has repeated often. In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, LaPierre opined: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun", insisting that schools should have armed guards.
Academics such as John Lott and Gary Kleck have long claimed that more firearms reduce crime. But is this really the case? Stripped of machismo bluster, this is at heart a testable claim that merely requires sturdy epidemiological analysis. And this was precisely what Prof Charles Branas and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania examined in their 2009 paper investigating the link between gun possession and gun assault. They compared 677 cases in which people were injured in a shooting incident with 684 people living in the same area that had not suffered a gun injury. The researchers matched these "controls" for age, race and gender. They found that those with firearms were about 4.5 times more likely to be shot than those who did not carry, utterly belying this oft repeated mantra.
The reasons for this, the authors suggest, are manifold. "A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact, instigating and losing otherwise tractable conflicts with similarly armed persons. Along the same lines, individuals who are in possession of a gun may increase their risk of gun assault by entering dangerous environments that they would have normally avoided. Alternatively, an individual may bring a gun to an otherwise gun-free conflict only to have that gun wrested away and turned on them."
This result is not particularly unexpected. Prof David Hemenway of Harvard school of public health has published numerous academic investigations in this area and found that such claims are rooted far more in myth than fact. While defensive gun use may occasionally occur successfully, it is rare and very much the exception – it doesn't change the fact that actually owning and using a firearm hugely increases the risk of being shot. This is a finding supported by numerous other studies in health policy, including several articles in the New England Journal of Medicine. Arguments to the contrary are not rooted in reality; the Branas study also found that for individuals who had time to resist and counter in a gun assault, the odds of actually being shot actually increased to 5.45 fold relative to an individual not carrying.
The problem goes deeper than this, however. There's good evidence that the very act of being in possession of a weapon has an unfortunate effect of making us suspect others have one too. This was shown in a 2012 paper by psychologists Prof Jessica Witt and Dr James Brockmole, where subjects were given either a replica gun or a neutral object and asked to identify the objects other people were holding.
Subjects in possession of a replica firearm were much more likely to identify a neutral object as a firearm. The erroneous assumption that someone else is armed can and does often end in tragedy.
Indeed, the evidence suggests the very act of being armed changes one's perception of others to a decidedly more paranoid one. Other studies have shown an element of racial priming too, where a black subject is more likely to be assumed to be carrying a weapon. Guns have a curious psychological effect beyond this: a 2006 study by Dr Jennifer Klinesmith and colleagues showed men exposed to firearms before an experiment had much higher testosterone levels and were three times more likely to engage in aggressive behaviour relative to the subjects not primed with a weapon.
LaPierre's proclamation bears the hallmarks of a litany of misconceptions. Gun aficionados often frame the debate in terms of protection, but it is vital to realise that the vast majority of rape and murder victims are not harmed by nefarious strangers, but by people they know, and often love – friends, family members, lovers. Far from protecting people and keeping families safe, the sad truth is that firearms are often used in episodes of domestic violence. The John Hopkins centre for gun policy research has some sobering facts on this; women living in a home with one or more guns were three times more likely to be murdered; for women who had been abused by their partner, their risk of being murdered rose fivefold if the partner owned a gun.
Nor did guns make the women safer; women who purchased guns were 50% more likely to be killed by an intimate partner. So LaPierre's "good woman with a gun" is actually, it seems, putting herself in danger.
Viewed in this light, the NRA's insistence that rapes can be prevented with firearms or that teachers should be armed appear even more stupid than they already seemed. It is worth remembering that just as America leads the world in gun ownership, so too does it lead the world in gun homicide, with 11,000 to 12,000 murders committed by firearms each year. The tired old rationalisation that guns protect people is frankly contradicted by the evidence. The inescapable conclusion is that gun ownership makes everyone less safe. The logic the NRA espouses is perverse and transparently self-serving – the solution to gun crimes is not more guns, and no amount of rhetorical dexterity can surmount this fact. If the US is to have a truly honest discussion about its gun culture, it needs to be rooted in fact rather than fantasy, and the sound and fury from the NRA should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves.
• Dr David Robert Grimes is a physicist and cancer researcher at Oxford University