Today, a jury convicted three white men of murder and other related charges for killing Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man. Mr. Arbery, a former high school football star, had been out jogging when three white men in two vehicles chased him down, stopped and confronted him, and, after a struggle, shot Mr. Arbery three times.
The case attracted international attention because of the legal system’s longstanding failure to hold accountable those who perpetrate racially motivated violence against Black victims. In this case, local prosecutors and police initially refused to even arrest, let alone prosecute, the three men responsible for Mr. Arbery’s murder. Local activism and video of the tragedy prompted the appointment of a special prosecutor and the ensuing trial and conviction.
Across the country, there is extreme underrepresentation of Black and brown people on juries and in the role of judges and prosecutors. The lack of diversity is compounded by an illegal but pervasive presumption of dangerousness and guilt which gets assigned to Black people. A long history of racial injustice, racial hierarchy and white supremacy has fostered conditions that make accountability much more difficult than it should be.
During slavery, violence against Black people to ensure subjugation and reinforce the myth of racial hierarchy was endemic. Enslavement could not be sustained without a false narrative that Black people were less human and less deserving of freedom to justify this violence. This narrative incorporated the belief that Black people were inherently dangerous and criminal.
After the Civil War, this belief spurred the lynching of thousands of Black women, men, and children, which often followed spurious accusations of criminal wrongdoing. A Black named Ben Daniels and his two sons, for example, were murdered in 1879 by a white mob after attempting to pay for goods with a fifty dollar bill, which they were accused of stealing simply because of its large denomination. Often, authorities, including law enforcement officers and elected officials, were directly involved or complicit in such racial terror lynchings, and there was no accountability for the perpetrators.
Even when perpetrators of racial violence were prosecuted, which was incredibly rare, the prosecutions were pro forma and particularly Southern juries, composed by law entirely of white men until civil rights reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, refused to convict. The two men who killed Emmett Till in 1955 were prosecuted, though the prosecutor agreed Mr. Till deserved punishment for acting “familiar” with a white woman, but acquitted by the all white male jury despite testimony from several Black witnesses establishing their guilt. The jury deliberated for 67 minutes, but as one juror later said: “We wouldn’t have taken so long if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.” In the modern era, perpetrators of racial violence have found a similar lack of accountability, as seen in the acquittals of those who killed Trayvon Martin, Tarika Wilson, Amadou Diallo, and Eleanor Bumpurs.
The presumption of guilt and dangerousness used to justify violence against Black people and the lack of accountability for those who perpetrate such violence has lead to and long supported the sense of entitlement on display in the killing of Mr. Arbery. Three white men, seeing a Black man jogging down the road, assume without evidence that he is the perpetrator of nearby thefts days earlier, chase him, stop and confront him, and kill him. Indeed, their sense of entitlement was for a time perfectly vindicated as the local prosecutor declined to prosecute. It was only after video of the killing emerged causing a national outcry and a new prosecutor took over that the three white men were arrested and charged.
The trial judge in the Arbery case allowed the trial to move forward even as he found, “There appears to be potential discrimination in the panel.” The guilty verdict in this case is rare and atypical which says a lot about the work that remains to address racial injustice in America even as many express relief and gratitude that this is not another instance of no accountability for unjustified, lethal violence directed at a Black person because of their race.