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Let's Celebrate Stand Your Ground

Tomorrow marks the beginning of February which means it’s also the first day of Black History Month, which is now given official government recognition and for 2023 will be devoted to the celebration of Black Resistance both in contemporary life as well as down through the years.

I hope this year’s theme will serve as a corrective to what has become a one-sided concern within Gun-control Nation about the threat and dangers posed by a legal doctrine known as Stand Your Ground (SYG), which is now a statutory and case law expedient in 44 states. SYG is blamed as a fundamental causal factor in our continued gun-violence carnage, and worse, is used by whites as a legal device to exonerate themselves from being charged with assaults against blacks.

Around these issues floats an even more vexing problem often unsaid, but nevertheless carries an enormous, unstated influence over the way which the contemporary debate about guns and gun violence is shaped. And this problem can be bluntly posited: why do black communities experience so much violent crime?

The usual answer is that the black rate of criminal violence, which is seven times the white rate, is a function of the interplay of ‘root causes’ of poverty and social despair. But if this is the entire explanation, how come the black suicide rate is one-third the suicide rate of whites, and the disparity between black and white suicide rates using guns is even greater than that?

I happen to believe that when it comes to violence, the black community labors under a misplaced and biased image promoted by white society from the time when we were still a country which contained some four or five million living specimens who were not considered to be human beings either in legal or social terms.

This situation obviously began to change in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment, but prior to that event, the subhuman status of the black population in slave states (where almost 90% of all blacks lived in 1860) was enforced not just by law, but by the whip and the lash. A Virginia law of 1669 made the killing of a slave by the owner or an overseer a non-criminal act if the action was taken for ‘corrective’ means, and it should be noted that on most plantations in the South, the overseer was black.

We do not have any detailed records of how many times slave populations resisted their servile status with individual or mass violence, but the fear of such events was endemic among whites living in slave states. In his study of slave revolts, Herbert Aptheker notes that such fears were commonplace throughout the entire pre-Emancipation era, particularly during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War, it being assumed that slaves would view invading foreign military forces as natural allies with whom they might share common goals and common ground.

The period directly following the Civil War – Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction – is when the focus on black violence usually encompasses the violence committed against blacks by the Ku Klux Klan. And even though it has been estimated that more than 20,000 blacks were murdered and otherwise victimized by extremely violent Klan attacks, the violence meted out by blacks resisting the Klan was also substantial but invariably ignored or underplayed by media which continued to promote the traditional, pre-Emancipation view of Blacks as passively accepting their servile state.

‘Massa’s in de cold, cold ground and de darkies is cryin,’ went the lyrics of a Stephen Foster song. But Langston Hughes knew full well that the blacks were ‘crying out of joy.’ The defense of slavery both before and after 1865 was also promoted by the spread of white Evangelicalism in the South, (see J. Patrick Daly, When Slavery Was Called Freedom), with southern churchmen insisting that biblical texts ordained slavery as well as ordering servile believers to accept the pro-slavery Word.

When blacks began moving in large numbers from the South to the North in the period known as the Great Migration (1910 – 1940), they brought their cultural and behavioral attitudes with them, and it is difficult to imagine that what blacks faced in Northern ghettos (poorly-paying jobs, restrictive housing, underqualified schools) was any different than what formed the basic sinews of black communities in the South.

Why would a young, black man who had learned to resist threats and taunts thrown at him by some racist cop in the South, all of a sudden turn around and willingly adopt a deferential stance when such behavior was directed at him by some racist cop up North?

SYG laws may codify a certain behavior which may occur when whites think they are threatened by blacks, or for that matter, threatened by other whites. But SYG culture also has its roots deep within the history of the black experience, and should be considered as a manifestation of the desire and demands of blacks to be treated on equal terms.

Want to celebrate Black History Month? Stand your ground.

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