The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Gun violence in the US occurs so frequently, that it is difficult to process each shooting that gets national attention. Those shootings, of course, represent only a small fraction of America’s gun problem. Of the many recent such shootings, one has been particularly striking for me. Mercifully, there was only one victim and it is likely Ralph Yarl will survive, but the shooting of Yarl is a devastating and depressing microcosm of the synergistic and deadly relationship between guns, fear, and racism in the US.
Ralph Yarl was a 16-year-old African American boy who was picking up his younger siblings from a house where they were playing with friends. This is the kind of thing that millions of older brothers and sisters do every day in the US, and indeed in the world. However, on April 13 in Kansas City, Missouri this almost became a fatal errand for Yarl. Doctors say Yarl will probably survive the shooting, but he is expected to have a long and difficult recovery ahead of him.
The man who shot Yarl, Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old white man who claims he was “scared to death” when he saw Yarl at his door, has turned himself in and will be charged with first degree assault and armed criminal action, but given the way the American criminal justice system works, we cannot be sure Lester will face any meaningful consequences for his action.
I am inclined to take Lester’s words at face value. I believe he was scared to death, but it is important to think about why Lester, on the other side of a locked door, was scared of 16-year-old African American boy, who based photographs of Yarl, does not look particularly frightening.
In short, the reason Lester was so scared is that for more than eight decades he has been told by large segments of the media, many politicians and countless other people and institutions in his life that he should be afraid of young African American males. In a very real sense, Lester was only feeling what he had been taught to feel. His actions are therefore a sick outgrowth of the insidious culture of white racism.
Lester’s actions are undeniably racist, but to end the discussion of the role race and racism played in this shooting there is to dramatically understate the problem. Lester’s actions are a product of the deep systemic racism, and the fear that buoys it, that has always been at the core of the social and political fabric of the US.
Fear is not just deeply intertwined with racism, it is a foundational part of conservative politics more generally. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the discourse around guns. Gun ownership has become a political sacrament for much of the far right and the Republican Party. This fetishization of gun ownership is based on a vision of daily life in America as one where danger, crime and aggression lurk around every corner, implicitly in the form of a man of color. Once a segment of the American people believes that image of their country, it is not hard to keep selling them more, and more powerful, guns.
Among the most glaring examples of this are Donald Trump’s campaign ads, the words and action of other conservative politicians as well as the drumbeat of fear that from right wing propaganda outlets like Fox News, which Lester spent many hours watching. The recent NRA convention, a sacred event for those for whom gun ownership is a sacrament, was laden with this kind of rhetoric. However, it is not just on the far right of the political spectrum where the structural racism-fear-gun fetishization complex rears its head. Too frequently we see more moderate politicians and news outlets falling into this narrative. Politicians, regardless of race, who exaggerate crime statistics and media who rush to cover violent crime without any context also contribute to this dynamic.
As a single event, the shooting of Ralph Yarl is heart-breaking and tragic, even though it looks like he will not die from his wounds. Andrew Lester, the man who shot Yarl, can be described as an angry racist who may be held accountable for his actions, but this shooting is not a standalone event. It occurs in the context of countless other stories of African Americans being shot by police or civilians for things like speaking on a cell phone in the yard of a family member (Stephon Clark,) going for a run (Ahmaud Arbery) or sleeping in their own bed (Breonna Taylor.)
Yarl and all the others who have been shot, and frequently killed, in these incidents are victims of a politics that views the sacrament of gun ownership as more important than human life; that tells white American repeatedly that they should fear African Americans; and that whips people into a lather of terror that society is about to collapse into anarchic violence. Until those things change, there will be more of this violence. Lester may have been the man who pulled the trigger and might end up going to prison, but the responsibility for those actions also lies with every Republican member of Congress who wore an AR-15 lapel pin this year, every presidential aspirant who prostrated themselves to the gun worshippers at the recent NRA convention, the NRA itself, every media outlet that breathlessly warned citizens about crime without mentioning how rare violent crimes are and every politician, regardless of their party, who got into office by exaggerating crime statistics and scaring voters.