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November 18, 2020

An Army Veteran talks about Systemic Racism & Why he Hates Guns.

I am an educated, privileged, white male. 

Today, I want to talk about the intersection of gun abundance and systemic racism in America. 

This toxic, dangerous combination is a growing cancer in our society.

What makes me qualified to write about such topics?

I have strong feelings, have done lots of research, but I also have unique and relevant personal experiences. Hopefully, they will help illuminate why I care so much. 

I dream about a future filled with cooperation and respect. But I believe that these are two of the most significant existential issues in our society. Individually they are both problematic, but when combined, they are an even more toxic poison.

They perpetuate each other and will lead to more division within our country—more unnecessary death to innocent people—if we do not take corrective action.

Both gun rights and racism are woven into the fabric of our culture, and the problem with both is growing exponentially.

Here are some facts to provide context:

>> There are more guns in America than people, with about 120 guns for every 100 people. (That is 360 million guns versus 330 million people.)

>> More guns were sold last month than any other month in American history (17 million).

>> 109 people per day are killed by guns in the United States.

>> Last year, over 10,000 people were murdered in the United States by guns.

>> While Black people in the United States make up only 13 percent of the population, they represent more than 50 percent of the murder victim rate.

According to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People):

>> One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared to 1 out of 6 Latino boys and 1 out of 17 white boys.

>> African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1.

>> White people make up a little over 60 percent of the population, but they only make up about 41 percent of fatal police shootings. Black people make up 13.4 percent of the population but make up 22 percent of fatal police shootings.

~

This year I wrote a book called Deep DiveExistential Essays for Personal Transformation. It contains a series of essays about existential issues in our contemporary environment. Both topics were addressed in separate essays. Now, after further reflection, I am writing this essay because these two issues are inextricably linked.

In part, I wrote the book to share detailed thoughts on various existential topics and because social media is an inadequate platform to communicate with others on serious subjects.

In my book, I look at the issues while standing on the pillars of existentialism. Those pillars are free will, passion, and accountability. 

We have the free will to make our own decisions. 

Many of our decisions come from our passion. 

We are accountable for our decisions and actions.

In the book, I also reiterate how important it is to understand that everything is subjective according to every individual person’s perception. We all have different life experiences that shape our perspective and, therefore, our beliefs. I wrote so people could absorb and process my subjective ideas on their own and then decide for themselves.

The book was broken into four sections of essays: 

Self. Humanity. Spirituality. Earth. 

While relevant and important, I avoided talking about politics because it is so divisive and makes people tune out if they disagree with my opinion. But, these days, it seems everything can become political—even this pandemic has been politicized!

However, I do ask the reader a series of questions after each essay to challenge them to hold themselves accountable for their thoughts and actions.

For example, in this essay, the questions could be:

How do more guns make us safer?

How does denying systemic racial injustice reduce it?

Black Lives Matter is a growing movement with legitimate concerns.

For years I couldn’t understand why the movement has been demonized by white supremacists and disregarded by many white people.

Then, a few nights ago, I had an epiphany:

Many white people in the United States don’t think that racism is a fundamental problem in our society.

If you ask most white people what is more important to them, the performance of the stock market or addressing racial issues, most would say the stock market. 

(Even though most of them might not have any personal investments in the stock market.)

So, fixing the problem starts with an acknowledgment of the problem. Again, the problem with that is that most white people (who have the power in society) don’t even acknowledge that the problem is fundamental or serious.

If we don’t acknowledge the significance of the problem, how can our country possibly address it or fix it?

I believe that racism is a cancer—a deep, internal, and metastasizing cancer spreading through and infecting society.

To date, our legislative solutions have been a Band-Aid approach. And a Band-Aid on cancer will not help cure cancer; it just partially covers a wound.

White culture has used the power of legislation to oppress. They have limited access to opportunity, education, and power. They’ve used tools like voter suppression, redlining, racial profiling, Jim Crow laws, and more. Moreover, we have a weaponized police force dominated by white male leadership to reinforce that power.

This is where it gets ugly and self-perpetuating.

People feel threatened and unsafe, so they buy guns to protect themselves. Police feel threatened because there are so many guns in our society, so they get bigger guns, more guns, more ammunition, and become more aggressive when interacting with someone who they perceive as a threat. The increased aggression from police and fear of escalation from perceived threat heightens the tension in interactions.

This leads to traffic stops that have turned into murder.

This leads to protests and, in some cases, property destruction and looting.

Each side blames the other. Each side characterizes the other as evil. Cops are portrayed as heavy-handed, racist pigs, and protestors are portrayed as hooligans, thugs, and looters.

The reality is that some people (on both sides) earn that reputation with their behavior.

Some protestors are looters. Some cops are bad. And when weaponized, the evil behavior is empowered.

Unfortunately, and contemporaneously, the politicians and media magnify and polarize each side to an extreme. Then, they use their platform to push a narrative that supports their agenda.

With the media, the agenda is growing their audience, getting better ratings, and selling more commercials to make more money.

With politicians, their agenda is to activate their base of followers against opponents so they can retain power.

As a result, we have a toxic, dangerous, and divided country.

Again, this self-perpetuates: 

The more toxicity, the more fear. The more fear, the more guns. The more guns, the more deaths. The more deaths, the more blame. The more blame, the more division. And it just keeps going.

So, we need to go back to the beginning and resolve issues like institutional racism denial and an unrestrained gun culture gone wild:

Racism

I believe that institutional racism is ingrained in the fabric of our culture.

Racism has undermined the potential harmony among people and the greatness of our democracy in the United States. It exists. It is prevalent. It is exacerbated by ignorance and perpetuated daily.

Denying that racism is a fundamental problem in our society is perpetuating racism. Either you are racist or actively acting against racism. There is no middle ground. Silence is complicity.

I have personal, relevant experience regarding race relations.

When I served in the U.S. Army from 1982–1984, I learned so much about people from different ethnicities. I saw first-hand how discrimination exists. As a white man, I had no idea how much I benefitted from my skin color. I had never been a minority before. I was used to being given the benefit of the doubt when confronted by an authority for any transgressions.

When stationed in Germany, I was housed in a small dormitory room with five Black men on three bunk beds for about a year. Most other rooms in the barracks were semi-segregated, with whites, Hispanics, and Blacks grouped together with their ethnic peers.

I came from a privileged background and had an education. This made me different from most of the other enlisted people of my ethnicity. My housing assignment was kind of a test case to see how I could get along as the only white guy in the room.

In that room, there was no racial hierarchy. In order to get along, we had to respect each other and live in harmony. That meant learning about new music, food, styles of clothing, and communication. I embraced this opportunity. I made new friends. And I made some enemies. But they were made not based on skin color. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they were judged by “The content of their character.” This was liberating and invigorating. There were lots of challenging times for me in the army, but this was the most valuable educational experience in my life.

While the military was not a pure meritocracy, it was a place where bullsh*t did not fly. Most of us were judged on performance as objectively as possible. Anybody who deserved it got promoted—especially on the enlisted side, where all the races were seemingly on an even playing field.

Guns

I hate guns. I hate what they represent: one person using the power of a gun to inflict their power of force on another person—against their will.

Imagine someone using a gun to make you do something you did not want to do. Imagine that same gun, pointed at you, threatening your life, as it gives the other person power over your free will. I’ve been in a similar situation while in the army. The details are too personal to share, but the impact has stayed with me. It changed my life forever.

An argument can be made that if I also had a gun, I could have “neutralized the situation.” Well, I could have shot him. I could have killed him. But what is the result of that situation? Someone would still be killed (maybe both of us). And I would have to live with that. 

Would more guns have helped in a situation like that? No.

The confluence of race and guns

I have another personal story that may also help give context to our situation in the United States regarding race and guns. A few years ago, I called the Veterans Administration about a situation regarding education benefits for my daughter.

I was under quite a bit of stress as my daughter was qualified to receive her benefits, but the school was not being helpful. I spent about 30 minutes on the phone with the education counselor. At the end of the call, she suggested that I talk to someone at the Veterans Crisis Line since she evidently felt the stress in my voice.

They transferred my call, and I told them that I was having a bad day.

They transferred me to a paramedic. He asked if I had access to any weapons, and I told him that I did not because I hate guns. He said that he wanted me to stay on the phone with him and that he was going to send some paramedics to check on me to be sure I was okay.

I agreed and laid down on my couch. A few minutes later, I heard a bullhorn from the street ordering me to come out with my hands in the air. I walked out with the phone in my hand to see at least six squad cars and about 10 police officers with guns pointed at me. They were screaming at me to drop what was in my hand and put my hands over my head.

With guns still pointed, they surrounded me, ordered me to turn around and walk backward toward them and kneel. I did exactly as they asked. They converged on me, pushed me to the ground, and handcuffed me. After that, everything was a blur. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I was violated by people who are supposed to protect me.

How is it possible that a simple call for help by an innocent, unarmed man in his home ends up with him kneeling, handcuffed assaulted by police with guns pointed at him? It felt unwarranted and unnecessary.

Remember, I am a white homeowner in a suburb. Imagine if I was a Black man in the city in an apartment?

How did this happen?

It happened because we live in a toxic environment of fear caused by gun culture.

Our gun culture began with our huge, rural country in the 1700s. The second amendment was ratified in 1791 when arms were muskets. Most of our population in America was rural, hunting was common, and there were no police to provide individual safety.

Muskets could fire about three rounds per minute. Now, legal weapons can fire 40 rounds per minute.

Noone could have imagined hundreds of millions of guns in America with semi-automatic capability and magazines holding dozens of rounds of ammunition.

As a result of my experience, I am afraid of the police. They were afraid of me even though I posed no threat that day while on my couch in my own home. They only perceived a threat because they knew I was a veteran, so they assumed I was armed. (We all know what happens when we assume.)

Until we learn to reduce the underlying tensions created by too many weapons and racism causing fear, we will have many more problems ahead.

Band-Aid solutions won’t help.

More guns won’t help.

It starts with all of us treating each other as human beings who deserve dignity and respect.

It goes both ways. We all need to cooperate.

This is our chance to fix these issues. We have a new president who says he wants to heal our country.

Now we need responsible legislation.

I propose a “Commission on Healing” headed up by bipartisan dual leadership of ex-presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Just the formation of this commission would send a powerful message. But their work together can do so much more.

They can lead by example and legislate necessary changes to bridge division, end hatred, reduce murder, support meritocracy, and create harmony.

A great man once had a dream for all of us. 

I have that dream too.

 

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