America is a political landscape of multiculturalism built on top of unpaid labor, domestic servitude, genocide and slavery — a mosaic of destructive colonial forces. Yet, to the end of viewing itself as a world power, white America has repeatedly weaponized Reconstruction-era politics in a time where we are seeing a reaction to its first Black president. The Baffler columnist Nick Estes speaks of such forces when, in his article, “The Empire of All Maladies: Colonial contagions and Indigenous resistance,” he uses the term “resource colonization” to assert that colonial violence, resource capitalism and the ravages of epidemics on non-white Americans can be included under colonialism and capitalism more broadly. 


The point here is that the United States was unmistakably built on both genocide and free labor. Adding to the burdens that have already been hoisted upon non-white Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic has slammed into their communities with deadly force enhanced by racist, irresponsible policies that disproportionately affect their communities. But ultimately, recent efforts to correct for and acknowledge these and other injustices have been met with violent white nationalist resistance.


Should the recently attempted coup merely be identified as a “working class” revolt, or is it a starkly racist and white supremacist reaction that is also carried (or perhaps justified, to some of its perpetrators) by class differences? I will come out and say, with certainty, that it is an entirely racist reaction — and so is our gun culture. 


Further, I contend these two American histories — a gun culture that developed in the aftermath of the American Civil War and today’s virulent strains of racism, fueling violence up to and including the recently attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — are inextricably intertwined and feed off of each other.


In her recent article for Harper’s Bazaar, “They Say This Isn’t America. For Most of Us, It Is,” Kaitlyn Greenidge points out that “the violence of Reconstruction was quickly whitewashed and justified” after reminding readers how Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, cited the end of Reconstruction when he rejected President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. 


Even more telling, she adds, is how the logic of the whitewashing of that history “is laced through statements comparing this to ‘something that happens in a third-world country.’ Never in America.” 


What struck me, and is perhaps even more telling, is the incoherence of that rewritten history. In fact, Greenidge puts it this way: “We are living in a story so many of us refuse to actually read.”


By now, we know that in the U.S., we live in a culture that clearly prioritizes forward momentum. The social ills that this culture inspires puts us on a path to quickly forgetting about past transgressions, and is impressionistic and insubstantial. Predictably, there have already been many takes on the insurrection. Though many are oppositional to each other, one might already associate working-class culture in America with gun culture and violence without even fully realizing it. 


The fact of the matter is, the working class isn’t solely responsible for the origin story of the American obsession and preoccupation with guns, violence and revolt. The wealth that racist policies have allowed to accumulate has far more to do with this. While the working class has adopted gun culture, they are more so consumers “buying into” a long-standing gun culture myth that is a product of consumer culture and, yes, racism. 


For starters, here’s one major flaw woven into the logic that only working-class people commit violence against elites: Greed for wealth — in the face of freed Black slaves possibly acquiring what they were previously unable to under most any set of circumstances — produced gun culture in defense of that unbegotten wealth. In turn, guns produced, and continue to produce, more wealth and power. That wealth and power accumulate at the top in the hands of the already wealthy.


Admittedly, this doesn’t mean guns aren’t a working-class phenomenon. But to assume that insurrectionist violence against the government is inherently associated with the working class requires a network of flawed assumptions about what brought us to the point where Michigan finally, and with no small amount of intense disagreement, voted to ban open carry in the state’s Capitol building around Inauguration Day.


You might ask, what’s the real history of gun culture and accompanying romanticization of violence, then? I will refer you to American Studies scholar Richard Slotkin in his review of the definitive book on the rise of gun culture, Michael Bellesiles’s “Arming America.” Slotkin opens his review of Bellesiles’s book by stating the following:


“There are not many points of agreement between the National Rifle Association and the advocates of gun control, but they do share a view of American history. The NRA asserts that gun possession is a widespread American tradition as well as a constitutionally protected right. Advocates of gun control agree that the habits of action and thought that underlie contemporary gun violence have deep historical roots, but they see this legacy as a cultural liability we must work hard to overcome—if we can.”


As it turns out, guns were seldom used before the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction. Drawing on a thorough and comprehensive history plus quantitative analysis, Bellesiles asserts that America’s gun culture is an “invented tradition” that developed in just one generation after the Civil War.


Why is this relevant? Because today guns are regarded as a right rather than a developmental and commercial entity. Due to this misconception, when people see a group of white people committing acts of violence against the government, the defining excuse that gets deployed uses class and inequity as justifications for white violence, rather than as an impetus for say, productive changes like increasing the minimum wage. If this attempted coup had truly been about class, there would have been — at least one would think — some verbalizing of related goals.


Instead, one controversial hot take most commonly and recently seen is one epitomized by the scholar Richard D. Wolff, who wrote on Twitter that the insurrection was “another manifestation of angry working class people.” Quickly, other people with sharply divergent views on the insurrection wrote back on Twitter, with impassioned comments defending the working class. Patrick S. Tomlinson combatted Wolff when he wrote that “working class people were at home, working.” 


At the end of the day, we happen to know that there were aspiring insurrectionists present at the Capitol who are doctors. Some of these doctors and lawyers flew first-class, and some even bought their plane tickets well in advance. 


Slotkin continues on to tell us how America’s concept of self-protection is distinctly different from Europe’s views on the topic, especially when it comes to the right to defend oneself or, more specifically, one’s private property. The elision of humans as property and the concept that white people could, and still can, defend property or even self-righteously defend their right to open carry guns as private property, at any cost or risk to the public, is rooted in a legally encoded right to violence. Such rights were debated to a similar end during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.


At the end of the long, winding path that got us here, what does the fact that some leftists incorrectly associate the insurrection with the working class say about America? Are we neck deep in consumer culture, to the point that we cannot see ourselves nor comprehend its effect on us, including the fact that our ruthless, competitive ethos is fed by racism? 


Have we, after all this, finally grasped the effects and reach of racism on us as the culturally resonant and ongoing phenomenon that it is, from the working class all the way up to the elites, who seem to prefer the assumption that racists are always differently classed than they are? 


The answer, I think, is unfortunately not. Despite a long summer of record sales for some Black-owned bookstores and multiple texts on racism at or near the top of various bestsellers lists, I do not think that we, as a culture and as a collective, have fully grasped any of this.


Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at

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