By now, most Americans have either witnessed or heard about the horrifically chilling video showing the murder of Black man Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Georgia man who was fatally shot in cold blood while going on an afternoon jog. He was shot down like an animal. Today, May 8th, would have been his 26th birthday.
The two White men responsible for Arbery’s murder, 36-year-old Travis McMichael and his father, 64-year-old Gregory McMichael, were initially not charged with any crime. Rather, Georgia state law suggested that they were acting in self-defense! On May 6, Tom Durden, district attorney for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, announced that the case is expected to be sent to a grand jury. On May 7, both men were finally charged with aggravated assault and murder.
As if this sadistic incident weren’t vile enough, another equally psychotic man, Anthony J. Trifiletti of Watertown, Minnesota, was recently arrested for the coldblooded murder of another unarmed Black man, Douglas Lewis, a resident of St. Paul. And Trifiletti’s defense? He feared for his life.
Go figure. That seems to be the default response for any White person who deems it necessary to employ deadly force against a Black person. But to say that Ahmaud Arbery was brutally murdered is an understatement. In fact, he was lynched. Let me say it again: HE WAS THE VICTIM OF A MODERN-DAY LYNCHING!
When I heard about the incident, I will confess that it took me a few minutes to process what I had heard and read. A man murdered for jogging? Yes — jogging! I was incredulous. This happened in 2020, almost 8 years to the day after the grizzly, savage murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by that abominable creature, that poor excuse for a human being, George Zimmerman. This grim irony has not been lost on many Black people.
Jogging while Black. Driving while Black. Walking while Black. Sitting in a public space while Black. Asking for help while Black. Eating while Black. Merely existing while Black. The cold, hard, agonizing, disturbing truth is that to be Black in America is to regularly endure an ongoing onslaught of assaults and insults. These incidents are a stark reminder that to be Black in America means to live in a constant state of uncertainty. You must always be on guard, always be aware of your surroundings. In the wrong situation, your reaction could result in your physical harm or, as in the case of far too many Black people, even your murder. Indeed, it seems that being Black is synonymous with being under an unrelenting emotional, physical, and psychological siege.
Truth be told, it is highly doubtful — in fact, highly unlikely — that a White man jogging on a Sunday afternoon, or at any time or on any day of the week, would be followed by two crazed self-appointed vigilantes with sinister intentions. On the contrary, he would probably be seen as a health-conscious person who was taking care of himself. At the very least, he would be given the benefit of the doubt, if not outright ignored by his neighbors. End of story.
Predictably, certain right-wing blogs and various assorted right-wing trolls have lost no time before engaging in a perverse form of offense, suggesting that Arbery was responsible for his own death. They brazenly denounce Mr. Arbery, arguing that he was being confrontational! Yes! You read that right! These are the racially bigoted, disingenuous men and women who fault Arbery for complicity in his own death.
But the truth is that Ahmaud Arbery was minding his own business. Rather, it was the sinister father-and-son McMichael duo who were the violent aggressors, taking it upon themselves to pump several bullets into Arbury’s body. This is a prime example of blaming the victim! Yet such intellectually dishonest tactics are routine, even commonplace, for those on the political, social, and cultural right. The entire issue is literally sickening.
While this is hardly news for those of us of African descent, the fact is that this reality does not resonate for many others who are not Black, particularly for White Americans. Many White people resort instead to defensiveness. To these Whites, it is not other White people, but rather Black people themselves who are the culprits. The usual narratives are: “There must be more to the story.” “They must have been guilty.” “What were they doing in that neighborhood?” “If they had just cooperated with the police…” And so on.
Well, the fact is that, more often than not, there is nothing more to the story but this: Another insult or injustice has been perpetrated on a Black person.
White denial has deep historical roots. It relies on the inability of White people to perceive Black reality. In some cases, it is an outright refusal to acknowledge racial, economic, and other disparities. We have seen this denial manifest itself in the often-hostile commentary that graces the comment sections, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and other social media sites of many Whites who refuse to accept the fact that maybe, just maybe, they are in the dark about the many stark realities that face a disproportionate segment of the Black populace in our nation.
From young Black teenagers walking in the park with White friends, to Black teenagers and adults being viciously pulled off trains and manhandled by police officers for not wearing masks (while White patrons without masks are eagerly given masks to wear by amiable police officers), to mentally deranged White citizens donning Ku Klux Klan masks in supermarkets, being Black in America means living in an ongoing state of terror.
Since setting foot on the shores of America, Black lives and bodies have been routinely scrutinized, objectified, sexualized, and racialized. Many Americans have never seen Black bodies or Black people — children as well as adults — as fully human. All too often, we have been seen as primitive and invisible, largely denied any degree of humane acknowledgment from mainstream society.
The law has routinely been used as a weapon against Black bodies. The pain, anger, and despair of Black life is often far too real, and this is a message that needs to be heard and listened to with a degree of sincerity and respect that excludes dismissing these individuals as people who were wantonly problematic, mentally disturbed, or irrelevant.
Let’s keep it real. If White people were routinely and randomly subjected to police violence, if they were frequently gunned down in the street by law enforcement at the same rate as Black people and other people of color, there would be cries of protests so loud that it would be political suicide for any politician or police force to dare to ignore them. And this is what people of color must do as well.
White denial and resistance notwithstanding, Black people are human beings who deserve to be treated with as much respect and dignity as any other group of people. These killings are modern-day lynchings. This sadistic behavior, this wicked disregard for the lives of people of color cannot continue.
Historian, public speaker, and cultural critic Elwood Watson, Ph.D., is a professor at East Tennessee State University and author of the recent book, Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press), which is available in paperback and Kindle via Amazon and other major book retailers.