Guns and Race in Appalachia

By Matt Skeens

I have been following the case of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old Cleveland boy who was shot by police officers, for some months now. This incident of a black citizen being killed by law enforcement affected me very strongly for two reasons. The first one is the young age of the victim. The second, however, is that it hits close to home for me: I'm a 25 year old white male from the mountains of Central Appalachia, but I felt like Tamir more than anyone. I had more than one "BB", or pellet, gun growing up. They always looked like the real thing; the more that they did, the more I liked them. Even before I acquired my beloved BB guns, I was partial to cap guns found in our local dollar stores. I'd take them home and either try to remove or at least obscure the orange tip the best I could. The guns and I were inseparable; I took them everywhere.

I grew up around guns for most of my life; I was fascinated with them. Guns, especially in rural parts of the country like my home of Appalachia, are ingrained in the culture, and we experience them from an early age. I'm not the first to touch on this phenomena; in fact, it has become so much a part of our cultural zeitgeist that it obscures the reality of the situation. Those who don't live in areas like this acknowledge it, but don't seem to understand. Those who do live in areas like this acknowledge it and can't for the life of them understand what the problem of it is. Why would they? They're so far removed from the gruesome daily reality of many minorities. However, at the same time they are in the middle of a culture that produces the Dylann Roofs of the world. It's a culture in the South that is often mocked and ignored by those on the outside and exaggerated and conflated by those who live on in the inside.

Growing up here, we are told from young ages that many of the ills of the world are found in the "big cities". Whatever racism you find here, when it's even acknowledged as racism, can be found tenfold in places "up North". I was surprised to find that, after traveling north of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time when I was 21, that it wasn't all that scary. I wasn't called racial slurs because of my white complexion. I wasn't jumped or robbed because of my paleness. Indeed, I haven't experienced any of that now, several years and visits to large cities later. I'm not naïve to the fact that there are dangerous areas in cities, and that my race wouldn't be welcome in some areas. Still, it was nothing like what I was told. The conjured-up images of large black men attacking me as soon as I dared step foot onto the pavement of metropolitans are burned deep into the minds of many young white kids here in the South. It's the form of racism that we're taught from the time we dare to inquire about the world outside of these Appalachian walls, and the form of racism that many live their entire life believing regardless of whether or not they leave the area.

While I did have the "talk" about the dangers of large cities when I was younger, I never had one about how to interact with law enforcement; They were never much of a topic. See, my interactions with law enforcement have been positive. It’s not an uncommon sight to see young people in town hanging out in the local police department parking lot or the Family Dollar lot right next to it. They have nothing to fear and that's how it should be. The disconnect between white America, or at least my white America, and black and brown America is palpable.

Some reading this may be thinking I'm either naïve and full of "white guilt", or simply ignorant, pretending to know what it's like to be anything other than a young, white male. Recognizing a privilege, however, that exists in many aspects of society isn't and must not be written off as white guilt. Poor whites, the people I have grown up around my entire life, can't fathom how they possess any privilege in this country. It's somewhat understandable when many of these people are smothered by poverty and live in areas that are almost entirely white. Ignorance is spawned between these mountains that are tinged white even when they're not snow-capped during the winter. They see the term "privilege" as something special or an extra right or thing they possess. In reality, the privilege isn't the result of some hidden right in the Constitution. We aren't treated "special", we're treated exactly how a human being in this country should be. Walking down the street unmolested by law enforcement is how everyone should be treated. On the other hand, the accusation that my naïvete gives me a false sense of understanding of exactly how others experience our society isn't correct either. I don't know what it's like. I just know that it's different, and in most situations, that's not a positive thing.

I've watched that video dozens of times by now, from the parts where I see a young boy being a young boy until the moment two men in uniform saw something different. I think back on all of those times with my beloved "guns" and see how I am not, as I originally thought Tamir Rice. He is, was me. A kid being a kid,ust like I was, until he became a man the very moment those two officers determined he was. He was never a kid to them. Not before they they rushed in and fired those shots or after while he laid there dying during those important precious minutes while his important precious life ceased. He was still a child in this world. He is still a child that was murdered at their hands. He was me until he became a dangerous black man in the eyes of the law and society. He was me, but I'll never be him. No, not because I'm 25 now and have put my toy guns away. I'll never be him because of a society that I'm genuinely trying to understand. I do know, however, that I've committed a crime. Not the petty ones I got away with as a youth, no. A crime that much more grave. The crime I am guilty of is that it took so much time and so many fellow young, dead peers to realize things like the fact that two twelve year olds can be the innocent children they truly are or a dangerous adult who needs to be purged from society, all through the same pair of eyes.

Matt Skeens, a DSA member from Virginia, is an activist and community organizer in central Appalachia.

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