Something about Ahmaud Arbery’s death struck a chord with a lot of people. This time, the gunning down of an unarmed black man seemed different from the countless times it has happened before.
Or maybe we are different now.
Forced to live in social isolation for weeks with no clear sight of an end, some of us have begun to look at life through a different lens. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our vulnerabilities and cautioned us to take less for granted.
Every moment of life — everyone’s life — seems more precious now.
In death, Arbery appears to have brought the nation to a collective state of mourning. We would like to believe he closed the circle that too often is broken by the divisive things that make us different — race, ethnicity, economic status and class.
But all grieving is not the same. For African Americans who watched the video of a white father and son chase Arbery down in a pickup truck and the subsequent events that left him lying dead on the pavement, the mourning is personal.
In him, they see the people they love most — sons and grandsons, nephews, uncles and cousins. They see in him the faces of young men who sit next to them on the buses and trains as they make their way home from integrated streets downtown to black enclaves on the South and West sides.
A friend, a professional woman in her 40s, told me that she woke up from a nightmare the other night, scared and trembling. In her dream, she was being chased by vigilantes. She thought she was going to die.
In time, the visual image of this blatant act of racism will fade from other people’s minds, as more urgent or even mundane events take its place. But for many African Americans, it will linger much longer, chipping away at them emotionally and physically until they are too sick to recover.
Research has found that racism has an adverse effect on the health of African Americans. They internalize it, and because discrimination is built into America’s the health care system, it often is undiagnosed, untreated and pervasive.
A couple of years ago, I spoke with Dr. David R. Williams, a social scientist at Harvard University, about the impact of police violence and the killing of unarmed black men. He has done extensive research on the relationship between racism, socioeconomic status and stress on physical and mental health.
In a study published in 2018, Williams linked a police database that records every incidence of police violence to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s database on mental health. What he found was astounding.
This kind of race-related violence not only affects those closest to the victim, it has a negative impact on the black population of the entire state for three months after the incident occurs. Following a police shooting, African Americans reported experiencing more mental health days than they did the rest of the year. There was no such effect on white people, even when the unarmed victim was white.
Black people, however, were depressed, worried and anxious. Stress levels were elevated, and they worried that it could happen again — because blacks are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police as whites, and five times more likely to be killed unarmed.
One reason for the elevated mental health issues, Williams told me, is that people perceive these shootings to be acts of racism when the black male is unarmed. “It’s something unjust and unfair,” he says.
Of course, health disparities are related to socioeconomic status as well, but there’s more to the story, Williams says. Science proves that the impact of racism and discrimination work in conjunction with social and environmental factors to negatively affect overall heath.
This leads to a ripple medical effect on the black population. And early exposure to all of these things can affect people from childhood throughout their life.
Greg McMichael was not a police officer, nor was his 34-year-old son, Travis. But the elder man had been a longtime officer with the Glynn County Police Department. After his retirement, he worked as an investigator for the district attorney’s office.
Obviously, 64-year-old McMichael still considered himself to be an authority figure. That could be why he summoned his son to join him in making a citizen’s arrest of a black man he thought to be a burglary suspect. It also could explain why they armed themselves with a rifle and a handgun and set out to track Arbery down as he jogged through the neighborhood.
People of fair conscience were appalled by these men’s actions and demanded that charges be brought against the assailants. Soon after the graphic video of the shooting became public, officials in Georgia did what they should have done nearly three months ago. They charged the men with murder.
People who believe that racism is a cancer on our nation want to know how they can stop this kind of thing from happening again. Unfortunately, they cannot.
Racism is embedded in the fabric of America. We cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can stifle it by standing together to send a strong message to racists that their actions will not be tolerated.
Hundreds of people of various backgrounds came together Friday for a rally in Brunswick, Ga., calling for justice for Arbery, who would have turned 26 that day.
Meanwhile, across the nation, runners jogged 2.23 miles on his behalf, symbolizing the date of his death, Feb. 23. Some wore handwritten signs on their chests bearing the hashtag, #IRunWithMaud. Others memorialized him in silence.
I walked 4 miles in his honor. It cleared my head and briefly calmed my aching heart, but did nothing for Arbery or the other young black men who continue to walk in his shoes. Their lives remain in peril.