Over the past three weeks of the murder trial of the three white men — Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan — charged in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Black America has been retraumatized.
Like the trial of George Floyd’s murderer, then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, in Minnesota in April 2021, the trial of the McMichaels and Bryan has revealed the shocking levels of racial hatred that still poison our society.
The men, facing charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony, were all found guilty of felony murder Wednesday. Travis McMichael was also convicted of the other charges, but George McMichael and Bryan were acquitted of malice murder. They all face life in prison.
Once again, the outcome of the proceedings leaves a bad taste in the mouth, for no prison sentence can ever put right the taking of an innocent life. These trials are the symptoms of our national sickness; guilty verdicts are like bandages applied in the hope of stemming bleeding during open-heart surgery. We will not be cured until we rid our country of racial injustice for good.
Arbery died because his white assailants made assumptions about him based on the color of his skin. He was out running in the majority white neighborhood of Satilla Shores near Brunswick in south Georgia last February when both of the McMichaels and Bryan decided he must be up to no good, chased him and Travis McMichael shot him dead. They later claimed, with no proof whatsoever, that they suspected Arbery of being involved in burglaries in the area. According to an investigator, Bryan alleged that he heard Travis McMichael say ” f—— N-word” after Arbery was shot. In fact, the violence unleashed on Arbery was so clearly racially motivated that the U.S. Department of Justice charged all three men with federal hate crimes in April. The men pleaded not guilty to these charges.
More than four centuries after the first slaves were transported to America and then criminalized to keep them subjugated, we clearly still live in a nation in which being Black or brown is enough to make you appear suspicious, even threatening, to some white people.
Steeped in hundreds of years of racist attitudes, some take one look at your outer layer and choose to assume that you have probably just committed a felony or are about to do so. And such assumptions can be fatal in a country in which white supremacy continues to fester.
Unlike white Americans, Black and brown citizens do not have the luxury of making assumptions. We can’t assume that law enforcement officers, active or retired, will protect rather than harm us. We can’t assume our white neighbors won’t see us as a threat. We can’t assume we are safe when we go jogging, pop into a grocery store, sleep in our own home or pull into a driveway to check our phone for directions.
The Arbery case has reminded us that if we suffer a racist assault, we can’t assume the police will promptly open a thorough investigation or make an arrest. It took over two months for an arrest to be made. We can’t assume that the legal system will protect us from further discrimination. One of the prosecutors who recused himself earlier on in the case, wrote in a letter that he did so because the men who chased and killed Arbery had “solid first-hand probable cause” to pursue him, a “burglary suspect.” Again, there was no proof that Arbery had stolen anything. We can’t assume that the jury in our attacker’s trial will be remotely racially representative. Whether or not Arbery received justice was left up to 11 white jurors and one Black one. If we lose a loved one to racial violence, we can’t even assume that we will be allowed to refer to them as a “victim” during a trial for fear of being seen as prejudicial, as the McMichaels’ lawyers wrote in a motion.
For nonwhite citizens like me, the toxic effects of others’ assumptions about us can literally shorten our lives, and not just through racist violence. When you are viewed with suspicion everywhere you go through no fault of your own, when you know that your country’s criminal justice system was actually designed to incarcerate as many people who look like you as possible, and when you are struggling against discrimination every day, you exist in a permanent state of hypervigilance. The stress that generates has a measurable impact on the physical health of Black Americans, who, as a result, are much more likely than their white counterparts to suffer from hypertension and therefore to succumb to an early death.
If we are ever to end racial injustice and the countless injurious effects it spawns – including hate crimes like the one that stole Arbery’s life – we must examine where harmful assumptions about Black and brown people come from and then overturn them. Generations after the invention of the false social construct of race was used to justify the inhumane treatment of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, misplaced fear of the “other” is now so deep-seated in some Americans’ hearts that it will not be quickly erased.
Positive change is possible, but we won’t achieve it just by exposing the darkness in our past and present. As a nation, in addition to stripping our justice and electoral systems of structural racism and creating equal access to opportunity for every person in America, we also need to begin the process of dismantling race altogether so we can move forward.
It will not be an easy task, but all of us who care about making America more equitable must be willing to put in the work. And it will take more than refusing to elect lawmakers determined to infringe on the voting rights of Black and brown people, challenging a loved one’s racist comments at the holiday dinner table or carefully curating our friendship groups to make them more diverse.
Important as such actions are, we have to go even further – we have to re-frame identity as being about something deeper than skin color by choosing instead to value and celebrate ethnicity, culture, heritage and citizenship. Education is the key to achieving this. If we can teach all our children to see every person as a human being with a soul just like them, we will be on the path to building a future free from finding the antidote not just to racism, but also to every kind of discrimination.
I pray that I will never see another trial like the one that has just ended. I long to never hear about another life lost to hate, another family destroyed, and another campaign demanding something every person in America should simply take for granted – basic justice. The expectation of justice should be as natural as breathing or sleeping or going for a run on a sunny day – we should be able to assume that it is available to us all.
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Keith Magee is a theologian, political adviser and social justice scholar. He is chair and professor of practice of social justice at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, senior fellow in culture and justice University College London and a fellow in politics at its Centre on U.S. Politics.
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