“This Goes On”: Did Arbery Die to Perpetuate a False Narrative About Contemporary American Society?

This essay is not about Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death at the hands of Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael. The men have been charged with murder and a court will likely hear the case. This essay is about the way a collection of moral entrepreneurs are plugging the shooting into a narrative they portrays contemporary America as a country where anti-black prejudice is ubiquitous. From that standpoint, Arbery’s death is not just the homicidal actions of two white men with guns in a pickup truck, but the result of a pervasive white supremacy that puts all black men at special risk for racist violence.

There was a time in our country where such a generalization would hold up under scrutiny. The literature on the history of racism and lynching in the United States is extensive. I have contributed to this literature in an essay published in The Journal of Black Studies, “Explanation and Responsibility: Agency and Motive in Lynching and Genocide,” and an empirical article in Crime, Law, & Social Change, “Race and Lethal Forms of Social Control: A Preliminary Investigation into Execution and Self-Help in the United States, 1930-1964.” I also blogged about this on Freedom and Reason, in the entry “Agency and Motive in Lynching and Genocide.” But the narrative no longer holds up and I’ve become increasingly troubled by the ideological practice of selecting and amplifying events in ways that distort the relative risks black people face in America.

Before moving to a discussion of why the narrative is not only wrong but harmful to black Americans and the general interests of the American working class regardless of race, I want to clarify the matter of appropriate and inappropriate resort to abstraction. Race is a social invention constructed from ancestry. Racism is the ideology in which phenotypic or physically apparent variation are said to be meaningfully organized into groupings called “races.” Since there is no underlying biological truth to this claim, supposing race is a real thing commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness or reification. However, aggregate statistics on demographic and behavioral characteristics can provide evidence for meaningful generalizations. Whereas it is inappropriate to substitute an abstraction, such as white person, for a concrete individual identified as white and attempt to make all whites responsible for that individual’s actions (there is no empirical basis for such a generalization), it is appropriate to look at the demographic patterns of crime and violence to determine the relative risk individuals with certain identities face. The progressive left elevates the inappropriate resort to generalization to the level of truth, while dismissing the appropriate use of abstraction as so much noise. This is emblematic of the postmodernist sensibility that underpins identity politics.

Let’s look at appropriate abstractions. Blacks constitute approximately 12 percent of the US population. Black males are less than half that percentage. Yet black males are responsible for more than half of all homicides that occur in the United States. The victims of black male homicide are overwhelmingly other black males. The intraracial character of crime is typical across several Index Crime categories identified in the Uniform Crime Report published by the FBI. While the UCR has been problematic in the past, it is accurate with respect to the most serious crimes. Moreover, overrepresentation of blacks in serious crime is also found in the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS).

These facts are not controversial in terms of their broad accuracy of representing actual phenomena. To the extent that there is interracial homicide, white people are more likely to be victimized by a black perpetrator than a black person is to be victimized by a white perpetrator. When it comes to robbery, to take another serious crime of violence, black males are much more likely to target white victims than the other way around. The brute fact is that black males are overrepresented in serious crime. Indeed, over half of all prisoners are violent offenders and their overrepresentation in our penitentiaries is explained by their overrepresentation in serious crime. (See “Mapping the Junctures of Social Class and Racial Caste: An Analytical Model for Theorizing Crime and Punishment in US History.”)

In sum, the facts do not support the claim that the greatest risk to black males are white people. Quite the contrary.

Moreover, the statistics do not support the claim that black men are more likely to be killed by police officers than a white man, a particular narrative Arbery’s death is (inappropriately) being leveraged to sustain (social media is flooded with memes of this character). See the work of Roland Fryer’s 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.” See also my entry on this topic which summarizes these and others findings: “Demoralization and the Ferguson Effect.”

So while it is true that the police are more likely to interact with black civilians, as pointed out by Kevin App and colleagues in Pulled Over, in part because blacks are more likely to be engaged in activities that draw the attention of the police, police are loathe to shoot black males. What we are seeing presently in the moral panic about the shooting is not based on a legitimate resort to evidence, but the agenda of progressives trying to resurrect Black Lives Matter in an election year, for political purposes, a movement that was from the beginning based on a myth about interracial violence present-day America. Whites are being made out to be folk devils sui generis.

This agenda has been given a powerful voice in the figure of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a possible Vice-Presidential candidate to run alongside former Vice-President and long-time Senator Joe Biden (who has a troubled history with respect to race relations), who accuses President Donald Trump of using rhetoric that green-lights racists. Bottoms claims that the lynching of Arbery (and I will leave to one side conceptual quibbles about how lynching should be defined) can be traced back to Washington.

“With the rhetoric that we hear coming out of the White House,” she said on CNN’s State of the Union, “I think many who are prone to being racist are given permission to do it in an overt way that we otherwise would not see in 2020.” The connection between Trump’s rhetoric and Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael is a claim made without any evidence. I could not with any integrity pin this shooting on Trump. I suspect that he is as horrified by the video as the average person. But readers should note that Bottoms is in the same breath acknowledging that what happened to Arbery is so rare that it would likely not have happened without a Donald Trump presidency. Just leave out the bit about Donald Trump and Bottoms is on solid ground.

What Bottoms’ admission means is that those journalists who make this shooting out to be representative of race relations in America, especially those progressives who have taken to social media to once more raise the alarm about white privilege, are wrong to leverage such a horrific event in this way, even if the perpetrators acted with racist motive. This is not the America of the post-Reconstruction period. It is a very different America, an America where the risk to blacks by white racist violence is vanishingly small, extraordinary in its occurrence.

Indeed, the risk to blacks in America is far greater in the black community, where structural inequalities and cultural attitudes have disorganized society and made violent crime an ordinary fact of daily life. Rather than dealing with this reality, the progressive left, while skirting the problem of social class (which I will come to), reflexively strives to portray whites as the singular cause of the problems of the black community, a claim for which there is no evidence, wrenching out of context a rare event and misrepresenting it as a sign of an epidemic of white supremacist violence enabled by the original sin of white privilege. This claim has the character of theological truth, This is not our reality.

Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death at the hands of the McMichaels is a terrible thing. The justice system is working as it should in bringing them up on charges of murder (although it may have hesitated when it shouldn’t have). But Arbery’s death cannot (or at least should not) be purposed in the way pundits, politicians, and progressive memes suggest. More than the inappropriate resort to generalization, to only care about the victims of homicidal violence when their perpetrators are white or police officers suggests a genuine lack of concern about the fate of black males in American society.

All this indicates that black homicide victims are only important when they can be used to perpetuate a political agenda that claims that the United States is a society that operates fundamentally on the basis of white supremacy, an objectively false narrative. And it must be pointed out that the exploitation of Arbery’s deaths for these purposes functions to further divide the proletariat by race, disorganizing the solidarity the working class so desperately needs in its struggle against capitalism. What lies ultimately at the heart of the urban violence that disproportionately harms black Americans is a social system that is inadequate to human rights and needs. Progressivisms appear to exist today only to disrupt our consciousness of this reality.

The divisive piece is why Joe Biden has taken up the agenda. His pandering has a grand purpose. Arbery’s shooting “resonates in so many ways across threads of our history into the present day,” he said at a virtual roundtable with black lawmakers, pulling the past too easily into the present. “By now many of us have seen that harrowing footage of Ahmaud Arbery out on a jog on a beautiful day in February in Florida, in Georgia, shot down in cold blood, essentially lynched before our very eyes, 2020 style.” It’s as if only the year has changed. Biden noted that the family deserved justice before adding: “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.” 

“This goes on.” Let those words roll around in your brain. It does not go on. Those dark chapters are in our past. We have reckoned with this. Decades ago. To be sure, our history is undeniable to those prepared to admit to it (count me among them), but it is also undeniable that the supremacy of whiteness is not our present or our future. To make this murder out as an indictment of America not only sustains a false narrative about our country, it denies the progress we have made as a country. That we overcame white supremacy is a sign of what is right about the American project. Denying this accomplishment drives a wedge between the working people of this country on the basis of race, which, when you strip everything else away, is what racism was about in the first place.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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