Race and guns: St. Paul, Baton Rouge and Dallas

by Michael Sean Winters

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"I scarce can take it in." All weekend, almost everyone in America felt this way. We watched the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge on video. Then we watched Philando Castile bleed to death in his car after being shot by a policeman in St. Paul. Then the killing of a police officer, shot at point blank range, in Dallas, also on video. A small mercy: The other four police officers killed in Dallas were not killed on camera.

"I scarce can take it in." The line comes from the third verse of the English version of the hymn "How Great Thou Art." This verse was actually written by one of the English translators, a Salvation Army missionary named Stuart Hine -- it was not in the Swedish original -- and Hine had in mind the passion and death of the Lord Jesus, not the killings that struck our nation last week, when he wrote it. Here is the whole verse:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,

He bled and died to take away my sin.

I confess my voice broke when we got to those words. Whatever Hine's intent, for me, that verse is about the killings last week precisely because it is about the Lord Jesus: If His suffering and death is not redemptive of our suffering and death, how to go on? Why go on? The spiritual challenge the killings pose to us Catholics find their answer in the great mystery of "God, His Son not sparing."

The killings last week are more than a spiritual challenge. They are, in the strictest and most foundational sense of the word, a political challenge. Those who complained that President Obama's comments were "politicizing" a tragedy had a too crimped understanding of what politics is about. This is about the polis, the community, a community that has achieved a new normal that is grim and wretchedly painful: the banner headlines; the somber president and governor and mayor speaking of the need for justice and healing; the "Breaking News" banner on CNN; the clergy of many religions coming together and urging calm and issuing a call for unity.

We have been here before, or have we? Did the killings last week push us past the breaking point? And, which issue has reached the breaking point, for the killings last week raised multiple issues for the American polity.

I recall the day we witnessed the murder of 20 small children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. We thought then that, surely, now our country would confront our national fetish for violence, overcome the unwillingness to stand up to the NRA's demand that weapons designed for combat be made readily available to any and all, recognize that if the rest of us can't get on an airplane with a normal-sized bottle of shampoo, maybe it was time to keep guns from being purchased by people with a history of mental health concerns, or people with a criminal record, or people who are not hunters. The children and the adults were buried. The tears of the families were noted. The shock of the community was registered. And nothing happened.

I recall the evening that nine people were murdered during a prayer service at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. Those killings, like the killings in Sandy Hook, were perpetrated by a young man who was well armed with weapons no person needs for pursuits like hunting or even for self-defense. Those killings, like the killings last week, were about race. The sad and ugly fact of the matter is that 150 years after the Civil War, and 50 years after the March on Washington, and almost eight years since we elected our first black president, the struggle for racial justice still entails too much struggle and too little justice. And after the funerals and the press conferences, nothing happened. They did pull down the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol, and I am conscious of the importance of symbols, but that won't stop the violence.

The killings have become routine. Yes, last Thursday night five police officers were killed, and we all feel a special pull on our hearts when those who put their lives on the line to protect the whole of society cross that line and lose their life. But Philando Castile put his life on the line too when he made the decision to be born black and male. Black Americans are killed in encounters with police at more than twice the ratio of white Americans. More than twice.

Most cops are good cops, and by good cop I mean someone who understands that in almost all interactions, it is they, the police, who have not only superior force but superior training in the application of force, which means they have far less reason to use it. Until white America understands the psychological and sociological effects on a person and on a community from realizing that the people who are there to protect you are increasingly likely to kill you, until white America at least acknowledges how little it understands those effects, the violence will continue. If you live in a mostly black, urban neighborhood, and everyone around you views the police not as protectors but as threats, is it any wonder that all manner of social pathologies will take root?

There is a special place in hell for those who note, correctly, that race relations have gotten worse during President Obama's tenure but then suggest that this deterioration is somehow his fault. To be clear, we can debate many things about President Obama's tenure but there is no denying the Republicans have been playing the politics of the dog whistle since Day 1 of his presidency. They say something that black people and racists hear one way, and the rest of the country does not hear at all. When the charge of racism is raised, the rest of the country is not sure how to react because they did not hear the whistle. A Republican congressman shouts, "You lie!" during the State of the Union. Catholic bishops speak of him as an enemy to the country. Baptist ministers wink at the suggestion Obama is really a Muslim.

Among these racists en route to hell are those few black faux intellectuals, like Cornell West, whose attacks on the president, also since Day 1, have been as virulent as anything coming from the Republican caucus. It was West who called Obama the "first niggerized" president and who objected to the use of Martin Luther King's bible at Obama's inauguration. "So I said to myself ain't nothing wrong with putting your hand on the Bible," West said, "even though the Bible's talking about justice, Jesus is talking about the least of these, but when you put it on Martin's bible, I said 'this is personal for me,' because this is the tradition that I come out of." And which "tradition" did the president come out of, Professor, and does he need your permission to access its totems?

To be sure, the racists, both the professionals and the amateurs, are not only disgusted with Obama, they are disgusted with the rest of us who elected him. Twice. I have less contempt in my heart for the uneducated, bumpkin racist than I do for the politician or black studies professor or man of the cloth who manipulates the bumpkin.

I have taken issue with the Black Lives Matter movement in the past. They are to be commended for shining a light on the problem of police violence against black Americans, and they are right to insist our nation addressed the problem. But the activist who posed the question -- "Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?" -- during a presidential debate misunderstood moral logic: Unless black lives matter, we cannot say that all lives matter, and vice-versa. The "or" did not belong there. Still, I was very glad the activists did not abandon the streets this weekend: They were not complicit in the murder of the Dallas police officers, not matter what the race-baiter-in-chief Rudy Giuliani says, and had they stopped the protests, people who have assumed otherwise.

Donald Trump complained, "We are a divided nation!" It boggles the mind.

Racism, sadly, will be ameliorated, if not cured, only when miscegenation is the rule and not the exception. Thanks be to God, our young people, especially our Latino young people, are entering into interracial marriages in historic proportions. In this regard, as in others, they may save the culture and the country. It is harder to hate someone you had breakfast with, harder to hate the group to which they belong, and harder still to hate your child who belongs both to your own racial group and to another. Not for the first time, pluralism is the answer.

The violence that attends racism in this country, however, has a more accessible remedy which will not eliminate the violence but will lessen it: It is time to get combat weapons off our streets. If I had my way, we would reverse Heller and even discuss repealing the Second Amendment, but neither are likely soon. But, the Supreme Court has shown a willingness to support bans on combat weapons. State bans will not work because borders are porous. And, a federal ban must be forever, preferably with buy-back provisions. In a better world, confiscation would occur, but this is not a better world, this is America.

Racism and guns. It is not a good combination. We can blame the politicians and the NRA and history, but our gun laws have not changed because too many of us, the people, do not want them to change. Racism persists because too few of us, the people, take the time to get to know someone from a different race and ask what it is like to walk in their shoes and to see with their eyes. The identity politics of both the left and the right invite the kind of boundary creating that harms the souls and imperils society. There have been achievements, to be sure, and the election and re-election of a black man was one of those achievements. But, we have a long way to go and it is up to all of us to take what steps we can. We must take in what is going on in our society, and take steps to address the problems, or charlatans like Trump will proffer their solutions and he might win an election too. And, in all honesty, I do not know if we have it in us to confront these problems in time. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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