In response to Wednesday’s murder of nine African Americans at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, President Obama said, “Innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
I’ll admit: When I first read that statement, I thought Obama was talking about the police. Unfair of me perhaps, but it’s not as if we haven’t now been through multiple rounds of high-profile killings of African Americans at the hands of the police.
Indeed, until Wednesday’s murders, it seemed as if the national conversation about public safety had dramatically and fruitfully shifted. From a demand for police protection of white citizens against black crime—which dominated political discussion from the 1970s to the 1990s—to a scrutiny of the very instruments of that presumed protection. And how those instruments are harming African American citizens.
It’s tempting to seize on this moment as an opportunity to broaden that discussion beyond the racism of prisons and policing to that of society itself. In a way, that’s what Obama was trying to do by focusing on the threat posed not by the state or its instruments but by private guns in the hands of private killers like Dylann Roof.
But that may not be the wisest move, at least not yet. So long as the discussion is framed as one of protection, of safety and security, we won’t get beyond the society that produced Dylann Roof. Not only has the discourse of protection contributed to the racist practices and institutions of our overly policed and incarcerated society, but it also prevents us from seeing, much less tackling, the broader, systemic inequalities that might ultimately reduce those practices and institutions.
Since the 1960s, when law and order became the rallying cry of the country’s rightward turn, particularly around issues of racial inequality, the notion that safety and security are the primary political goods has migrated across the ideological spectrum. In 1975, the influential libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick declared that a “minimal state”—“limited to the functions of protecting all its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud, and to the enforcement of contracts”—was the only legitimate form of government.