Racial battle fatigue and the pandemic: A modern-day lynching in Georgia

Ahmaud Arbery was the victim of a modern-day lynching — and it took more than two months to arrest his killers

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 14, 2020 9:10PM (EDT)

Family of Ahmaud Arbery embrace at the Glynn County Courthouse during a protest of the shooting death of Arbery on May 8, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Family of Ahmaud Arbery embrace at the Glynn County Courthouse during a protest of the shooting death of Arbery on May 8, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the American people great pain and suffering. More than 86,000 people have been killed by the virus — and the true number of dead is likely higher. Public health experts are predicting that, ultimately, hundreds of thousands of Americans may die from this pandemic, which will also have long-term negative health consequences for many people who are infected and survive. Individuals and entire communities are experiencing severe mental trauma because of the overall impact of the coronavirus on their sense of safety, security and well-being.

The U.S. economy has lost trillions of dollars. Approximately 20 percent of Americans have lost their jobs, and in 40 percent of American households making $40,000 or less, at least one adult is unemployed.

This pandemic has dragged the United States into a second Great Depression.

In response to this crisis, Donald Trump has again failed as a leader. Trump has no conception of the public good and has traits of both sadism and authoritarianism. He appears to be actively sabotaging coronavirus relief efforts in order to punish his "enemies" (such as people living in states or cities governed by Democrats) and also to enrich himself, his family and his allies. 

Yale University professor of epidemiology Gregg Gonsalves recently summarized Trump's actions on Twitter as "getting awfully close to genocide by default".  

As Fintan O'Toole observed in a recent essay for the Irish Times, America in the Age of Trump and the coronavirus pandemic has become "pitiful."

The pain and suffering caused by the coronavirus pandemic is not impacting all people in America the same way. Because race and class are inexorably linked together, nonwhite people — as well as the poor and working class more broadly — are disproportionately suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.

There are various reasons for this. Black and brown people are more likely to work in service industry or public-sector jobs where they must interact directly with the public. Nonwhites – especially African-Americans and Latinos, as well as Native Americans — are less likely to have the wealth and other income to support themselves during the pandemic and the extended unemployment it is causing for tens of millions of people.

Nonwhites are also more likely to have pre-existing conditions than white people in America. This is because of income and wealth inequality and a resulting lack of access to quality health care. Black people, Latinos and Native Americans are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic because environmental racism has left them more exposed to pollution and other toxic chemicals in their homes and communities.

These disparities of race and class exist among front-line health care workers as well: For example, Filipino and Filipino-American nurses, nurse's assistants, home health care workers, doctors and other health providers are dying from the coronavirus at disproportionate rates, compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

Writing at Raw Story, Sonali Kolhatkar describes the deadly and disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic across America's divides of race and class:

Ending lockdowns too early will kill more Americans — it's that simple, and even the government's own agencies project such a scenario. President Donald Trump has admitted it, saying, "Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon." Except that ending the lockdowns now will specifically kill far more African Americans than any other demographic. The health news website MedPage referred to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on blacks as a, "Wildly disproportionate mortality." Research shows that African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate that is, "2.3 times higher than the rate for Asians and Latinos, and 2.6 times higher than the rate for Whites." In fact, whites are the least impacted demographic in the nation….

Kolhatkar observes that "an early return to 'normal' threatens the lives of people of color disproportionately. Trump knows this and has exploited it to his benefit. It is no wonder that the same people who railed against the Affordable Care Act and Medicare for All are the same people who voted for the most racist president in memory, and who are now demanding an end to social distancing measures."

In total, the coronavirus pandemic is contributing to a condition that social psychologists and other experts have described as "racial battle fatigue": the stress and other negative health outcomes that afflict nonwhite people from living in a racist, white supremacist society.

Racism and other forms of inequality and violence do not observe stay-at-home orders or social distancing rules. Power and injustice work through, and are amplified by, such crises as the coronavirus pandemic: Injustice and inequality do not rest, take a day off or become dormant even during such a horrible time.

Such a state is what black folks describe when they say that they are "sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Consider the apparent modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery by Gregory and Travis McMichael on Feb. 23 in Satilla Shores, Georgia.

That is a community festooned with Donald Trump signs, with a long history of lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan and other white hate mobs, Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and killed for the "crime" of jogging while black and refusing to be sufficiently submissive to armed white men who deemed him to "look like" a criminal. 

The modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery was the lethal outcome of "the black-panic defense" and the hyper-visibility that comes with being black in white spaces. This is also true of other lynchings of black people in the country's recent past.

One can only imagine the terror Arbery felt as he was being chased down by heavily armed white men in a pickup truck, the kind of image seared into black people's collective memory on the journey from slavery to freedom (and beyond). Such terror haunts America. For centuries white people have terrorized black and brown people and killed them by the tens of thousands through racial pogroms and "race riots," as well as individual and group lynchings and other acts of racial terrorism.

The crime of "jogging while black" is a 21st-century version of old Jim Crow "crimes" under which black people could be arrested, murdered, beaten or generally humiliated and "put in their place" for "bumptious walking," not stepping off the sidewalk when a white person approaches, looking a white person in the eyes or daring to ask that they be paid for work they have completed.

In his book "Trouble in Mind," historian Leon Litwack describes one such incident:

Martin Luther King Sr., born in 1899, spent his youth in rural Georgia, where he witnessed drunken white men beat a black man to death for being "sassy," a term commonly used by white to identify troublemaking, "uppity," and "impudent" blacks. In this instance, the victim's "sassiness" consisted of refusing the demand of the white men that he hand over his paycheck. He had been murdered not for violating the racial code but for being successful at his mill job and pocketing his pay.

The evidence to date shows that Ahmaud Arbery was innocent of committing the "crimes" for which he was apparently killed — in this case, entering a house under construction and supposed involvement in a series of alleged thefts and burglaries. But in a sense that is irrelevant: Even if Ahmaud Arbery had done those things, such minor offenses do not demand the death penalty by street execution.  

Gregory McMichael and his son Travis were arrested on May 7 for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, nearly two and a half months after the killing. Those arrests only took place because of mounting public pressure.

Why did it take so long? It appears the men were being protected by the local district attorney's office and other law enforcement officers who deemed the killing of Arbery as being "justified" under Georgia's "stand your ground" and firearms laws.

There is another reason why Gregory and Travis McMichael chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery. Because they are white and he was black, they thought they could kill him and get away with it. In their minds, they imagined themselves heroes.

Of note: Gregory McMichael is a former police officer and investigator for the local district attorney's office. It is more likely than not that an enterprising local reporter or civil rights group will be carefully examining his record of behavior when he was a law enforcement officer.

Gregory and Travis McMichael also understood "their" neighborhood to be a whites-only territory that they were bound to defend against anyone to deemed to be an enemy by their own criteria of belonging, which no doubt included concepts of "us and them," "good and bad," "black crime" and white safety.

As occurs when there is video evidence of white violence against innocent black people, there will be an effort to paint the assailants as monstrous caricatures, outliers of white supremacy, throwbacks from a long-ago past.

Such a story is lazy and too easy. The white supremacy of post-civil rights America and the Age of Trump needs such stereotypes of white racism, because those pitifully low standards of comparison seem, a priori, to exonerate other white people from ever being accurately described as racists. 

How did President Donald Trump and presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden respond to the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery?

Last Thursday, Biden said, "By now many of us have seen that harrowing footage of Ahmaud Arbery out on a jog on a beautiful day in February in Georgia, shot down in cold blood, essentially lynched before our very eyes, 2020-style. This family and the country deserves justice and they deserve it now. They deserve a transparent investigation of this brutal murder. But our nation deserves it as well. We need to reckon with this, this goes on. These vicious acts call to mind the darkest chapters of our history,"

On the same day, Trump said, "So I'm getting a full report on it this evening. My heart goes out to the parents and to the loved ones of the young gentleman. It's a very sad thing…." 

On Monday, Trump also said of Arbery: "He looked — I saw the picture of him in his tuxedo, it was so beautiful — I mean, he looks like a wonderful young guy. I think it's a horrible thing."

Several days prior to those comments, Donald Trump said something far more revealing of his true feelings about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and what that evil deed reveals about America.

In an interview with the New York Post, Trump complained about female reporters who are "mean" to him and not "respectful" enough. He expressed the view that today's female reporters should be more like 1950s TV and film star Donna Reed, who portrayed a dutiful housewife on her eponymous television series.

Yearning for the 1950s and other nostalgia-filtered pasts when America was "great" is at the core of Trump's appeal for his mostly older and and almost entirely white supporters.

But this imagined past is a lie, filtered through a distorting prism of whiteness. Trump and his supporters' "good old" days mean white male dominance over every area of American life. Black and brown people, as well as women, LGBT people and others who were not white, straight, male and Christian were oppressed and otherwise marginalized. Trump's fantasies about women like Donna Reed's television character reflect an era of Jim Crow white supremacy as well as male domination. 

In that imagined golden age of America's past, Ahmaud Arbery would have suffered much the same fate as he did that February day in the Age of Trump.

During an interview with CNN last Sunday, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms summarized Trump's role in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery: "The rhetoric that we hear coming out of the White House — in many ways, I think many who are prone to being racist are given permission to do it in an overt way in a way we wouldn't [otherwise] see in 2020."

What will happen when Arbery's killers are put on trial?

Gregory and Travis McMichael will likely not be convicted of murder or any other major felony. Research shows that so-called "stand your ground laws" function as practical permission for white men to engage in legal murder against nonwhite people.

When black men (and black women and black children) are killed by white street vigilantes there is an old lesson from America's past. Ahmaud Arbery forgot, for just a few seconds or minutes, that he was a black person in America, where innocent activities like jogging in a white neighborhood or looking at houses under construction can get you shot dead. To forget that one is a black person in America — and to forget the informal rules of survival that come with that fact — can still be a death sentence.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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