White Defenders

“Self-defense” in America safeguards the privileges of white men as possessors of property, arbiters of sexual access, and inflictors of violence.

One March afternoon in Laredo, Texas, a white 17-year-old named Harlan Carter came home from school to find his mother in distress. Three weeks prior, in February 1931, the family car had been stolen; now, his mother told Harlan, she had seen a group of Latino youths near their property and she believed that they had somehow been involved in, or at least knew something about, the theft. Carter fetched his shotgun and confronted the four young men, who had been passing time at a nearby swimming hole.

What happened next is murky: One of the boys, 12-year-old Salvador Peña, later testified that Harlan and the oldest boy, Ramón Casiano, 15, exchanged words; Carter demanded the young men come with him back to his house; Casiano refused, produced a knife, and asked if he wanted to fight. According to Peña, Carter leveled his shotgun at Casiano, who slapped the barrel aside, stepped back, and laughed at him. “Then the American [Carter] asked him if he thought that he was not going to use the rifle, and fired at him.” Carter’s shotgun blast caught Casiano in the chest at close range, killing him.

At trial, Carter’s lawyer argued that his client had merely intended to shoot Casiano in his right arm so as to make him drop the knife (a claim Peña disputed, saying that the knife had been in Casiano’s left hand instead). Taking a dim view of this putative self-defense claim in his instructions to the jury, the judge framed the last moments of Casiano’s fatal encounter with Carter within the context of their broader confrontation: “There is no evidence that [the] defendant had any lawful authority to require deceased to go to his house for questioning, and if [the] defendant was trying to make deceased go there for that purpose at the time of the killing, he was acting without authority of law, and the law of self-defense does not apply.” After 90 hours of deliberation, a jury found Carter guilty of “murder without malice aforethought,” but this verdict was overturned several months later by an Appeals Court, which ruled that the judge’s instructions about self-defense law had not been “appropriate.”

Harlan Carter would go on to attend law school, work for the U.S. Border Patrol (which he ran from 1950-1957), and ultimately become Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association (NRA), presiding over that organization’s transformation during the 1970s from a comparatively apolitical organization for hunters and target shooters, to a “no-compromise” advocacy group steeped in culture war politics and with a newly emphatic focus on guns as tools for self-defense against crime. When details of the 1931 shooting resurfaced in the 1980s, Carter, who had slightly changed the spelling of his first name in the intervening years, first denied any involvement, and only after extensive pressure admitted that he had been the shooter in an event “that did not involve culpability on my part.”

Carter’s self-defense claim does not occur in Caroline Light’s important new volume, Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense (Beacon Press, 2017), but many other stories of violence do: a public spat over a catering bill leads one early 1800s politician to gun down another on a Boston road; an antebellum Congressman kills a District Attorney, his wife’s lover, in plain daylight across the street from the White House; a pro-Confederate Indiana Democrat who had nonetheless served in the Union Army gets caught in a brawl on a contentious Election Day after the Civil War, killing a pro-Republican Quaker; a group of white teenagers harass an educated black farmhand on the Midwestern frontier, and one of the white teens winds up shot dead; a Creek Indian shoots a white farmer who had threatened to kill him for supposedly harming a hog; a gun goes off when a posse of white Oklahomans enters the home of a black family in 1911, leaving one white man dead, and ultimately, the mother and son dragged from jail and brutally lynched; and many more.

Light makes a compelling case that appeals to “self-defense” throughout American history have never been an equal-opportunity recourse. Instead, she argues, pious abstractions about a supposedly universal right to employ violence in defense of one’s person have, from the start, reflected chauvinistic calculi of which persons are deemed valuable or disposable in the first place: “Our laws are not just innocent by-products of injustice—they are vital elements of a vast matrix built upon racist, heteropatriarchal, and capitalist privilege intended to protect the white castle, at all costs.” From the colonial era to the Civil War, to the frontier to modern suburbia, some lives have mattered more than others, and for all the lofty rhetoric to the contrary, our courts and norms have only really respected certain selves as worthy of defending.

Light traces the roots of American thinking about self-defense to English Common Law, which held that “if one were attacked or threatened, the king and his laws, not the individual, would avenge the injury… [and that] one was obligated to retreat if threatened, rather than respond with lethal violence.” The exception to the latter rule was in one’s own home, the secure space from which further flight was not possible. As one landmark ruling pronounced: “The house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defense against injury and violence as for his repose.” This stipulation, of course, implied a bundled network of assumptions involving gender and class: a home qua castle was the prerogative of property-owning patriarchs. As Light points out, women had no place in this structure except as a kind of property, whereby a woman effectively became a kind of subordinate extension of the husband’s legal personhood. In this scheme, a woman had no right to resist either the physical punishment or sexual advances of her husband, let alone to defend herself with lethal force. If she were to do so, her crime was analogous to regicide.

This structure persisted in American law, taking on additionally pernicious dimensions in the context of American class hierarchy and white supremacy. Chattel slaves had no rights to self-defense, and were subject to brutal abuse, exploitation, and murder. Moreover, as Light makes clear, this denial of any claims of self-defense to slaves was not just about maintaining a violent order that used slaves as sources of workplace production, but about safeguarding the production of yet more slaves by ensuring predatory sexual access for white masters. “The enslaved woman was excluded from any right to self-defense, for she owned neither her body nor the ‘castle’ that contained her,” Light writes, “[And] after the criminalization of the importation of slaves in 1808, slavery’s continuity relied on enslaved women’s bodies to serve as the vehicles of workforce repopulation.” As Light shows, the supposed prerogative of white men to defend “their” women through violence against black men, time and again upheld through the courts, went hand-in-hand with widely condoned violence by white men against black women in the time of slavery, during the height of the era of lynching, and beyond.

The history of “self-defense” in America reveals a series of protective actions for safeguarding the privileges of white men as possessors of property, arbiters of sexual access, and inflictors of violence. Resonating with Carol Anderson’s powerful notion of “white rage” as a reaction against even minimal gains in terms of rights by minorities, Light documents how expansions of the right to self-defense by white men are closely tied to correlative demographic changes involving women and minorities. Reconstruction thus sees an expansion in self-defense claims and justifiable homicides by white men, while the phenomenon of lynching emerges as a practice by which whites not only violently enforced norms of sexual access against hystericized threats to white women, but which also vindicated the South against supposed humiliation by despised aggressors. Such claims remain operative today, borne out both in terms of statistics on the outcome of self-defense claims, as well as in terms of contemporary political rhetoric. Likewise, phenomena from the burgeoning trend of concealed carry (especially among white men) to the proliferation of “Blue Lives Matter” legislation seem very much bound up in reactions to perceived threats against traditional symbols of white male authority.

Light does not shy away from historical facts that popular memory and contemporary debates often erase. She unsparingly describes how many white suffragists supported extrajudicial violence to protect white chastity, and likewise calls attention to the under-acknowledged role of armed self-defense by black Americans during the sixties and seventies. But as Stand Your Ground moves into the present moment, the book can begin to feel schematic and, at under 200 pages, a little thin. Although Light covers all her bases—and the treatment of recent self-defense claims by abused women and sexual minorities is particularly outstanding—her discussion of the NRA is fairly short, and the role of contemporary think tanks and lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC) in directly shaping gun rights regulations, although mentioned, is underplayed.

Light closes Stand Your Ground by turning to contemporary efforts to illuminate the double standards that characterize our apparent national indifference to the realities of violence in everyday America. Movements like Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName have done much to “call out the deadly consequences of racist, classist, and (hetero)sexist violence.” But in early 2017, with the impact of Stand Your Ground laws arguably more transparent than ever, with national gun laws reasonably expected to liberalize yet further, and with gun sales suddenly spiking among minorities, the question of what the future holds is uncertain. It is unquestionable that our approach to self-defense cases exposes the most vulnerable Americans to abuse and worse; likewise, it is undeniable that when they do defend themselves, the most vulnerable Americans are in turn regularly re-victimized by our courts. The resulting situation is a hellish double-bind. The only thing which seems certain is that we will see more of the same: more Marissa Alexanders, more Trayvon Martins, and more Ramón Caisanos.