Commentary: What Gun Violence in Black Communities Says About America

Examining the "miner's canary" effect and common sense gun control.

Posted: 12/28/2012 05:22 PM EST

Regrettably, we learned this week that the city of Chicago has registered its 500th homicide. It’s the city’s highest murder rate in four years, and many of these homicides are a result of gun violence — too many of which resulted in murdered children.

Too much of the current public discourse on guns and violence in America does not center on the community that are plagued the most by guns and violence in America — the Black community.

If you poll the urban and Black communities on the most commonly mentioned tenets of common sense gun safety: universal background checks, a robust assault weapons ban and closing the gun show/internet loopholes, it would become clear that communities most tragically impacted by gun violence accept “gun control” as common sense communal safety.

It’s not that Black people don’t own or desire to own guns. It’s not that Black folks don’t hunt. It’s not that Black folks don’t want to protect their homes and protect themselves from government. (Please consider how many Black and brown men are unjustly murdered by law enforcement or by vigilante-styled stand your ground nuts, and you will see that Black people have legitimate reasons for forming militias).

The issue is whether the public discourse on gun violence — now en vogue as a result of the Newtown massacre — can capture the signals generated from within the heart of gun violence and gun proliferation problems — in Black and brown parts of inner city America.

In 2002, Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres published their research on the ways in which race and power intersect and portend America’s future. According to these scholars, problems that our nation often considers to be racial problems are actually precursors to national problems. Epidemic gun violence is a textbook example of Black people being the miner’s canaries for the rest of the nation — most strikingly middle-class white America — in malls, churches, movie theaters and schools.

There is other evidence that the miner’s canary effect is at work. You will notice that coverage of the last few violent gun massacres in white, middle America has deliberately tried to suppress the murderers’ names and to pay greater homage to the victims. Not that Black Americans have a monopoly on memorializing the dead, but if you have ever seen the urban memorials that are constructed at the scenes of the crime, the victims muralized in neighborhoods and on T-shirts or reflected in the lyrics of poems and rap songs, then you will know that the “miner’s canary” community figured out this simple but powerful shift in the focus of how we respond to tragedy a very long time ago.

In “Money Trees,” Kendrick Lamar raps: “Everybody’s gone respect the shooter/But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” Memorializing victims of gun violence is not a solution to the myriad problems we face with respect to violence, masculinity, conflict resolution, gun proliferation, mental health, etc. But since the desire for common sense gun safety is already a prerequisite in our community, maybe our voices need to be heard a bit more as the nation tries yet again to wrestle with its violent demons.

James Braxton Peterson is the director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, a scholar of hip hop and Black popular culture, and a regular commentator online and on various cable news networks.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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