The headline in the Washington Post made my blood run cold: “For racially biased conservative Whites, owning a gun is just part of being a good citizen[1].” Authors Alexandra Filindra and Beyza Buyuker based the article on multiple research papers they had authored, separately and together.

bullet holes in glass make spider web patterns

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Once I could make my brain understand that headline, I read the whole article. Then I wondered: Where do we get our ideas about being a ‘good citizen?’

I’m not talking about legal citizenship, about the ‘right’ to be here in the U.S.. I’m talking about your sense of obligation to the society in which you live, to other people around you, near and far.

Perhaps like me, you had a teacher (or three) tell you that following classroom rules was part of being a good citizen of your classroom community. Perhaps you, too, had mock elections when the grown-ups went to the polls: in third grade I voted for Richard Nixon, while Linda Hamburger voted for Hubert Humphrey. (I subsequently lorded it over her when Nixon won. She was a nicer person than me: she never so much as smirked when it turned out that Nixon was a crook.)

Or perhaps you came here as an immigrant and won citizenship status. If you lived in Berkeley or Oakland, California, you might have had my good friend, Kay Tolman, as your teacher. Kay’s goal as an educator was to help her adult English-language learners develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to thrive and be happy in the United States. In her classroom, Kay emphasized community. She wanted her students to know that “in this society they’ll have the power to affect the world around them, including in government, because that’s how we make collective decisions here.” She added, “Citizenship is great, but citizen engagement is greater.”

Many immigrants eschew U.S. citizenship, because they retain a strong tie to their homeland. As Kay put it, “They’re torn between where their babies are born and where their parents will die.”

"I Am an American" booklet

Perhaps that’s why Kay chose to focus her curriculum on local settings, such as knowing their rights and responsibilities as neighbors and tenants, and how to build relationships so they can, for instance, ask neighbors to turn down noise or pick up pet poop. She also wanted to inspire her students to become informed voters.

cowboy with tin cup looking away

Or maybe you, like many gun owners, got your notions of citizenship from the NRA[pp. 14-15], which initially built its membership from its work in the last century teaching members of the National Guard how to shoot. More recently, NRA magazines reinforce messages of ‘rugged individualism,’ of “life in the country where people use firearms for hunting and protecting themselves from wild animals and hostile humans. Gun owners are often portrayed as

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fiercely independent people who work hard and rely on their own resources and abilities, not the state, to get ahead, provide sustenance and security.[p. 3]”

The more I delved into the correlation between gun ownership, racism, and identifying as a ‘good citizen,’ the more curious I became about the racial bias part of the equation. And the more I addressed my curiosity, the more nauseated I become. Go ahead, take a dramamine, because the road is about to swerve to the right for a bit.

According to research conducted by Alexandra Filindra, “white Americans associate white gun ownership with good citizenship and patriotism but Black gun ownership with criminality and danger. These stereotypical beliefs are stronger among racial conservatives, individuals who score high on racial resentment[p. 15].”

 

Another researcher, Jennifer Carlson [p. 10], focuses “squarely on documenting how guns are used by men to navigate a sense of social precariousness. This requires thinking about guns in terms of three registers of decline. First, the appeal of guns must be situated in a context of changing economic opportunities that have eroded men’s access to secure, stable employment. Second, the urgency of

guns must be understood in terms of abiding fears and anxieties surrounding crime and police inefficacy, concerns that encourage men to embrace their duties as protectors. Third and finally, the celebration of guns must be understood as a response to growing feelings of alienation and social isolation, such that guns come to represent not simply an individual’s right to self-defense but also a civic duty to protect one’s family and community.” [p. 10]

 When I read more of her book, I saw the second ‘register of decline’ concerned with ‘police inefficacy’ (during a period of decreased violent crime) as being where these men reinforce their racial bias, particularly against black men. This logic combines with Stand Your Ground laws to lethal effect, as happened to Trayvon Martin, may his memory be for a blessing.  

While I completely disagree with Carlson’s research subjects’ assumptions, logic, conclusions, and prescriptions, I now have a greater understanding of where they’re coming from. Using Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, local author Stephen Cataldo describes three ‘moral taste buds’ that conservatives have (and that liberals are likely to lack[1]): leadership and followership; supporting your in-group; and cleanliness (purity) and taboos (contamination). [p. 36.] I believe the racially biased conservative whites in Filindra’s, Buyuker’s, and Carlson’s studies are ‘tasting’ two values when they say that gun ownership makes white people good citizens: they are reinforcing their in-group; and they are supporting cleanliness over taboo.

I believe Isabel Wilkerson[2] would agree with my last point. For white people in the U.S., racism is not only about choosing one’s own racial group over another’s. In making her case that the U.S. is a caste system, she describes the fourth of eight ‘Pillars of Caste’ as ‘Purity versus Pollution,’ as the “fundamental belief in the purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution from the castes deemed beneath it.[p. 115.]” Remember in grade school, when having ‘cooties’ or touching someone with ‘cooties’ rendered you an outcast? That’s the essence of this phenomenon. It is the same idea that caused Emmet Till’s lynching, that precipitated the draining of a swimming pool if a Black person had so much as dipped a toe in.

The linking of racial resentment, gun ownership, and good citizenship seems to be based in fear and scarcity. Nearly thirty years ago, my work at the Oakland Museum of California demonstrated that human communities and societies operate under the same principles as pristine natural communities, whether we like it or not. In each, interdependence, niches, and the importance of diversity are crucial to the health of the community. My colleagues Susan Quinlan, Tania Grande, Sergio Perez, Frank Reyna, Kelly Tran, Darcy Fohrman, and I demonstrated to an Oakland neighborhood that safety lay not behind their grated windows and locked doors but in getting to know and working together with their neighbors[3].

Now that’s what I call being a good citizen.

 

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[1] It’s not that liberals don’t care about authority, loyalty, or cleanliness; it’s that they don’t ascribe political value to those values.

[2] If you haven’t yet read Wilkerson’s blockbuster hit, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, click on that link and order your copy from an independent bookstore.

[3] The project involved Susan teaching interns Tania, Sergio, Frank and Kelly community organizing and environmental education skills. They organized the neighborhood to reclaim a vacant lot, and Darcy helped them describe their experience in a well-received museum exhibition.