Are All White Americans Police Officers?

The murder of Ahmaud Arbery proves White supremacy’s superiority complex is lethal

Photo: Sean Rayford/Stringer/Getty Images

Ahmaud Arbery was considered a trespasser from the day he was born. That racist notion ultimately caused his death.

The 25-year-old man went for a run one February Sunday afternoon near Brunswick, Georgia, as was his custom. That Sunday, his route took him past the home of Travis McMichael, whose father Gregory had been standing in his front yard. Unbeknownst to him, the McMichaels armed themselves with a .357 magnum revolver and a shotgun, and set off after Arbery.

Moments later, Arbery heard a voice call after him. The voice demanded, “Stop, stop, we want to talk with you!” Arbery looked back to see the McMichaels trailing after him in their white pickup truck. Arbery was fatally shot, at least twice, after a struggle over the shotgun. The McMichaels later told police that Arbery fit the description of a robbery suspect, to justify the lynching.

Many across the nation were understandably outraged, and demanded action to stop crimes of racist terror like the one that cut short Arbery’s 25-year-old life. But the truth is that Arbery’s death was caused by an insidious attitude many White Americans are loath to admit: simply put, murders like that of Ahmaud Arbery happen because many White people believe they are still our overseers.

An obvious thread connects Arbery’s murder to the death of Trayvon Martin. Like the McMichaels, George Zimmerman claimed Martin fit the description of a robbery suspect, pursued him with a firearm, and murdered him. The non-Black men in these tragedies assume they have the exact rights and prerogatives of police — to stop, pursue, arrest, even to kill.

The root of this kind of violence is the lethal notion that White people hold some inherent authority over Black people.

But the thread of that dangerous logic also includes incidents that didn’t end in death. It connects the McMichaels’ command — “Stop!” — to the shouts of “Barbecue Beckys” and “Permit Patties” who call 911 on people for cooking out, selling water bottles, taking a nap in a common dorm, renting an Airbnb, visiting a loved one’s apartment, sitting in a Starbucks, and taking out the trash while Black. The list is too exhaustive to include every instance.

It extends far back into our history, back to the South’s Black Codes that forbade Black people to move about the world freely without a permission slip from a White master. Back to the slave patrols, established to keep Indigenous people off White people’s property and return African fugitives to enslavers.

We’d love to think we’ve all but eliminated racism in this country — but in 2020, White people still interrogate us with 1850s-style questions that should by now be long extinct.

What are you doing? Why are you here? Where are you going?

I’ve heard that last question numerous times: from police, when I’ve been randomly searched for drugs and weapons; and from my neighbors, as I’ve entered my apartment complex — where I’m the only Black renter — after a long day’s work. As KRS-One once put it: “You need a little clarity, check the similarity.”

The root of this kind of violence is the lethal notion that White people hold some inherent authority over Black people.

When the McMichaels hopped in their truck in pursuit of Ahmaud Arbery, they chased the opportunity to experience that inherent power of Whiteness — to have mastery over a Black person.

I’ve often heard White people justify the death of unarmed Black civilians at the hands of the police by saying, “They should have followed directions.” But if the most well-intentioned White folks claim to be in serious pursuit of a world where jogging while Black is not punishable by death, they need to challenge it directly.

Writer, speaker, & musician contending for a world without racism.

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