Last August, as my wife and I and two of our friends biked through the Great Allegheny Passage in McKeesport, Pa., a city 12 miles from Pittsburgh, I joked that we probably wouldn’t see any more black people until Maryland. I was wrong. In the 150 miles between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md., we saw four.
The dearth of black people on the GAP trail should be no surprise to anyone who’s driven through Pennsylvania. A popular joke about the state is that it’s Pittsburgh on one side, Philadelphia on the other and Alabama in between. The “joke,” of course, is that once you leave those metropolitan areas, you’re surrounded by small towns and rural farmland. And “surrounded by small towns and rural farmland” is a euphemistic way of saying “surrounded by whiteness.”
Thing is, that dynamic isn’t exactly unique to Pennsylvania. Regardless of where you are in the country, once you get 10-15 miles outside a city’s greater metropolitan area, you’re probably going to splash into a sea of white people. And that sea probably won’t end until you’re near another city. It’s so stark that if you had no concept of America and you asked an American where the black people lived, they could just draw a small circle around the 30 largest cities, say “there” and be mostly accurate. And then, if you asked where the white people lived, they could say, “There, too. And everywhere else.”
In America, white people are everywhere, and this ubiquity connects to perhaps our greatest irony: We (black people) are vastly outnumbered by them. They also own more land, earn and possess more money, and have all the guns. Most of the people making laws are white, as are most of the people enforcing them. There are entire states you can drive through without seeing one of us, entire lives that can be led without ever having any meaningful interaction with us. We are surrounded, outnumbered, out-resourced and outgunned. Our entire existence here is a continual assault on our bodies.
But we are the ones perceived to be the threats. We are the ones they’re scared of. We are the ones who tell our children how to dress and how to wear their hair so they’re not thought of as threats to them. We are the ones who consciously and subconsciously modify our voices and our behavior when forced to interact with them. We’re the ones whom trained officers with weapons and badges and handcuffs and legal justifications are so damn scared of that we’ve created entire curricula based on that fear, teaching ourselves what to do to seem less frightening to them.
This fear is why they’re so obsessed with arming themselves with multiple human killing machines. It’s why they fight against even the notion of incremental disarmament so vehemently. They are scared shitless of us. Of anyone who is not them. And this fear is why our shitty gun laws exist, and it’s why they will continue to.
Perhaps this fear is guilt-based, and they’re scared the same way you were as a kid when you stole some cash from your teacher’s purse. And you kept waiting for repercussions, but they just never came. But that fear—that feeling that you’d have to answer for your wrongs eventually—never quite left. Or maybe this fear is karmic. A belief that once we “get on top,” we’ll treat them the way they’ve treated us. And that fear drives them to do whatever they can to maintain their position.
Either way, I doubt we’ll see any movement on guns until they acknowledge this pervasive and delusional and self-destructive collective fear and go to therapy. And if that doesn’t work, maybe we just need to buy them some fucking maps.