When Ahmaud Arbery’s sensational killing became media fodder, many in the media decried it as a clearly racist murder, and even former Vice President Joe Biden got in on the act, calling it a “lynching.”
But surprisingly others, including the conservative media and the defendants themselves, rejected the characterization of Ahmaud’s murder stemming from racism. Franklin Hogue, the lawyer representing defendant Gregory McMichael, gave a press conference outside of the Glynn County jail where McMichael had been arrested and is being held on charges of felony murder and kidnapping. He wanted to make it clear that his client was no racist. While Arbery’s killing might bear a passing resemblance “to elements that feed into the despicable and violent history of racism,” he added that the facts in this case, “cannot be shoehorned into a narrative that’s being told so far…This is not some sort of hate crime fueled by racism.”
The common defense against plainly reprehensive acts of violence committed by whites against Blacks is that just because the races of the victim and perpetrator might be different does not automatically mean that the crime was “racially motivated.” Arbery’s is one among several recent killings by police officers (or citizens self-deputized to act as officers) that have inflamed racial tensions to the boiling point, and led to mass demonstrations and riots in cities across America. With so many people decrying what they see as a clear pattern of racist violence, how is it possible that none of the perpetrators could have acted without racial malice? In a country where many people believe racism remains a major problem, how can there be so few avowed racists?
That’s right—where most people think others are racist, very few of us, even those accused of the worst atrocities imaginable, including cold-blooded murder, are willing to cop to the label. How can both propositions possibly be true? In order to explore that we would have to dig deep within ourselves and answer questions that most of us would not care to publicly discuss.
But in the interests of fairness and truth, I propose we test ourselves. How can we determine whether or not we might actually harbor racism?
When you hear about a suspected terrorist bombing, do you secretly assume that the perpetrator is of Arab or Middle Eastern origin? Conversely, when a person of Middle Eastern or Arab origin is accused of a crime, do you secretly suspect it was an act of terrorism (rather than just ordinary criminality)?
When you are out jogging in the park and you hear footsteps behind you, and you turn around to see who it is, are you relieved if the person turns out to be white (or Black)?
Are you more happy to work around those who “look” like you because you assume they hold the same values you do? Or are you more concerned with your co-workers’ professionalism, competence and character?
Did you vote for President Obama because he’s Black? Did you vote for President Trump because he’s white?
Are you more likely to sympathize with a group of white protesters who are breaking the law than you are to sympathize with a group of Black protestors? Are you more likely to promote or rationalize police violence used against one group?
If you are a police officer, are you less likely to lock someone up who spit on you because they’re white, but more likely to put your foot on the neck of a Black suspect because you think you can get away with it?
When you see a baby of any color do you get that warm fuzzy feeling of wanting to protect and nurture him or her? Or do you only get warm and fuzzy when seeing a child of your own race?
Do you privately use racist language?
The true and honest answers to those questions—don’t worry we won’t ask you to reveal them to us—could tell us a lot about where racism resides in this country. I suspect that it comes closer to home than any of us are willing to publicly admit. The truth is that even good people can be racist. You don’t have to be a violent sociopath to harbor prejudice. And just because someone is a psychopath who should never be wearing a badge or gun, doesn’t mean they are also racist.
But here is where the rubber hits the road. If we do not address abuses of power by those in authority, our government will ultimately lose legitimacy and we may descend into chaos and anarchy. It is especially critical that the government make an extra effort to help those without wealth and social status, and those in minority groups who may have faced historical prejudice. But whether racism or not, jackboot thuggery on the part of folks who are supposed to serve and protect cannot be tolerated.
Follow on Twitter: arightside