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Opinion A Virginia incident reflects the reality of being black in America

Donny Richard Salyers is one of five people charged in the recent alleged assault and hate crime against Pastor Leon K. McCray Sr. in Shenandoah County, Va.
Donny Richard Salyers is one of five people charged in the recent alleged assault and hate crime against Pastor Leon K. McCray Sr. in Shenandoah County, Va. (Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office)

THE VENOM of American racism is as toxic in major cities as in rural areas, in the North as in the South. African Americans are murdered and brutalized for no good reason; more often they are subjected to uncountable quotidian humiliations.

Last month, it was an African American bird-watcher, Christian Cooper, falsely accused of assault by a white woman in Manhattan’s Central Park; days later, it was a black pastor, Leon K. McCray Sr., arrested in Virginia for the “crime” of defending himself, on his own property, from a rabble of white trespassers.

The Virginia incident took place June 1 in Shenandoah County, an overwhelmingly white area 100 miles west of Washington, where Mr. McCray had confronted two people at an apartment he owns, neither one his tenant, who were dumping a refrigerator on his property. He asked them to leave. One of them returned shortly afterward with three others who he says surrounded, jostled, threatened and taunted him with racist abuse — black lives, they said, don’t matter in Shenandoah County.

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Alarmed, Mr. McCray drew his handgun, a weapon he carries legally, keeping them at bay while he called 911. Yet when sheriff’s deputies arrived, it was the black pastor they handcuffed, not his white assailants. “I felt literally like I had been lynched without being killed,” Mr. McCray, who said he had no criminal record, told his congregation in a sermon two Sundays ago at his Lighthouse Church & Marketplace Ministries International in Woodstock, Va.

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It is impossible to imagine that scenario playing out in reverse — with the arrest of a lone white man menaced by a throng of hostile black people. With numbing familiarity, it is African Americans who are victimized by the presumption of guilt.

In the case of Mr. McCray, a 24-year Air Force veteran who retired as a master sergeant, and so many others, that presumption is preposterous. He was the one who was surrounded; he was the one who called 911; he was the one standing on his own land. Like Mr. Cooper, who was within his rights to ask that a white woman leash her dog in compliance with Central Park’s rules, Mr. McCray did nothing wrong. Yet both men faced racial hostility and threats.

Mr. Cooper, who recorded the encounter on his phone, was questioned by police but not arrested. Mr. McCray was released after a few hours, but not before being charged with brandishing a weapon. That charge is now being dropped, according to local authorities, and last Friday Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter issued an apology.

At this point, Mr. McCray’s five alleged assailants have been arrested and charged — four with felony abduction and all five with a pair of misdemeanor assaults, including assault in a hate crime. That’s a reasonable step, but why wasn’t it taken at the outset? Sheriff Carter offered assurance that he and his office “care about the [county’s] minority communities, and especially our Black community.” Given what happened to Mr. McCray, how would anyone believe him? What will he do, what will Shenandoah County do, to prevent a recurrence?

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