Ahmaud Arbery and Our Shortsighted Grief

His is a picture you’ve seen a lot over these past several days.

Not months. Days. For while Ahmaud Arbery has been dead for three months, America is just now waking up to this reality. And as we weep again for a black life cut short, there are some who want us to remember that there are millions of white people who aren’t killing black people. As well, white America has become very good at being grief stricken in the moment and inactive in the long run.

Seeing people as statistics

“It’s not that I don’t think this is tragic. I want those fuckers to go to jail for killing him. But, most incidents like this always have us acting like it’s a massive epidemic. I’m sorry but it’s not.”

or

“I’m sorry for what happened to this young man. Seriously. I just want us to able to breathe and put things into perspective. This isn’t the time to riot and get more divisive against each other.”

These were but two of hundreds of like comments I heard yesterday over a Zoom discussion I was facilitating on race in the aftermath of the senseless, cowardly, racist shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. The intent of the discussion was to illuminate and address some deep rooted issues that had a small company struggling to maintain morale as employees came at the Arbery shooting from different perspectives.

Of course, these same discussions occurred after the death of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott. I could list more but I won’t. After all, if you are awake to the injustices towards the black community in this country, you don’t need more names. You’ve wept over them. You’ve seethed over them. They are etched in your mind. If you are in the camp that the deaths are tragic but nowhere near an epidemic, you will spend more time counting the names, doing some math, and regurgitating the low percentage of black men who are killed by white men in this country. Such would be an easy and beneficial way to divert attention from both issues.

That’s right. BOTH. ISSUES.

Issue 1: The killing of black men by white cops: In the U.S., African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. For black women, the rate is 1.4 times more likely. More specifically, roughly 1-in-1,000 black boys and men will be killed by police in their lifetime. For white boys and men, the rate is 39 out of 100,000.

Issue 2: The killing of the black experience by white people.

  • Statistically speaking, black people are poorer, less healthy, and less educated than white people.
  • Historically speaking, white people have had centuries and decades of access and opportunity to enrich their lives in a multitude of ways.
  • Historically speaking, black people have had centuries and decades of legal slavery, segregation, and discrimination that hampered their lives in a multitude of ways.

These two sets of FACTS are necessary when putting into perspective how we react to the racist shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. If we do not understand the weight of inequity on black people at the hands of white people, we will see Arbery’s death as tragic while struggling to understand the level of national outcry.

When Arbery died, a part of black America died with him

Arbery’s racist death is not an abacus exercise. Instead, it is a staunch reminder of where black people stand in comparison to the very race of people who shot him dead. Society could hypothetically go three years without a white cop shooting a black man and yet the underpinnings of slavery, segregation, and discrimination would still reverberate in too many other ways to count.

Try walking to the store and taking in polluted air every single day because it is beneficial to put factories in poor cities and towns.

Try walking to the store and looking at dilapidated buildings and housing because your neighborhoods are neglected as much as the people who occupy them.

Try walking to the store and seeing a higher presence of police and liquor stores because that combination alone has a compounding effect on crime.

Try working at a low paying job and seeing rich white people paying for things that you can only dream of.

Try experiencing all of this, seeing the racist shooting of a fellow black person by a white person and putting it into some statistical perspective. You can’t. When Arbery died, so did a part of every black person who feels the daily sting of inequity and everything that comes with it. He was shot in a racist act of violence and indifference. The same indifference bestowed upon black communities across this country every single solitary day.

Our momentary grief

We have yet to address the sins of our past and how they have continued to shatter an entire race of people. Until we do, deaths like Arbery’s will continue to be dealt with in temporary and hollow bouts of grief and unity. Process those words for a moment.

Temporary and hollow. Temporary. Hollow. If you are white and they sting a bit, it means you have a pulse. If you are white and it angers you, I’ll take it. If you are white and you think it’s hogwash, consider this.

There are people jogging in the memory of Arbery. There are people posting about how angry they are about his death. If we weren’t in a time of social distancing, there’d be candlelight vigils. And yet, all of this has been and will continue to be temporary. How many white people are fighting for racial equity today, based on the anger they expressed any number of times yesteryear? How many white people realize that when the vigil disbands, people are going back to living separate, unequal lives? How many care? How many care enough to do something about it?

So when a black person says, “I’m tired of the false sense of connection and grief. Where are y’all every other day of the year”, they do so for good reason. We love giving our hearts and time but when we have to give our voice and our wallets, we’re gone in sixty seconds.

With that, I leave you with a poem.

His feet were moving fast, in no way faster than his mind

His kind, resilient heart just racing, as his race became the sign

For two white cowards to go hunting, punting deference to the wind

They blew him down for being black, then slept for months in their own skin

And as the world takes in the darkness, yet another black man down

We come together for a moment, in our sheltered, bubble towns

People running for a cause, because their heart inspires them to

He was running without pause, to keep the only life he knew

Ahmaud Arbery, say the name, for it’s a sign we can’t ignore

For while we’re weeping in the moment, we have seen this dance before

Certified Master Facilitator / Certified Diversity Executive / Award-winning leader in empowerment and equality.

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