The result is a view among some black leaders that race relations in the United States are at a low point, with President Trump’s often divisive rhetoric and the pandemic’s economic crisis — also battering nonwhites at higher rates — now punctuated by the stark video of a violent death.
African American leaders are not hiding their anguish. “This killing is just the most egregious example right now of how sick people are and how racist they are in this country at the moment,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.). “It’s not just what’s happening in the South in this isolated incident.”
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, placed the shooting in the context of the broader national landscape. “When you have hate emanating from the Oval Office, why are we surprised?” Bass said. She also urged Americans to put the events in a larger context. “If you could do anything to help this country, could you please draw the connections?” she said.
Arbery’s killing, which occurred in February, became a flash point last week when the video emerged that showed him trying to jog by a white pickup truck with two armed white men aboard. Three shots can be heard as Arbery struggles with a man holding a long gun. The other, perched on the bed of the pickup, can be seen with a handgun. Arbery would have turned 26 on Friday.
Additional video emerged Saturday that is believed to show the moments before Arbery’s death. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published surveillance footage showing a figure entering a house under construction shortly before the shooting, lingering for a few minutes, then jogging toward the location where the men confronted Arbery.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation confirmed that the video is part of its investigation. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s family, tweeted that the figure in the video is believed to be Arbery. Both Merritt and the owner of the house said nothing was taken or damaged.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is using the shooting to press his case that the country is divided and has lost its moral compass, and that he is the leader to restore it.
“Lynched before our very eyes, lynched so plainly, unmistakably and without mercy,” Biden wrote of the killing in a post on Medium late Friday. He added, “This vicious act calls to mind the darkest chapters of our history and more recently, the awful specter of white supremacists on the march in Charlottesville, of massacres in houses of worship, of a rising pandemic of hate.”
Biden has used the phrase “pandemic of hate” several times to describe the shooting, implicitly tying it to the covid-19 outbreak.
Trump has also expressed dismay at the shooting, saying on “Fox & Friends” that the tape of the incident was “very, very disturbing.” He added, “I looked [at] a picture of that young man, he was in a tuxedo. . . . I will say that that looks like a really good young guy, and it’s a very disturbing situation to me.”
But he also raised the possibility that the episode could be more complicated than it appears, an argument that angered black activists who saw it as a nod to Trump’s largely white coalition. “You know, it could be something that we didn’t see on tape,” Trump said. “If you saw, things went off tape and then back on tape.”
White House aides did not respond to questions about the comment, which was made before the additional video emerged Saturday.
The two white men in the truck, a father and son, were charged with murder Thursday, 2½ months after the killing and two days after the public release of the video.
One of the suspects, Gregory McMichael, told police that Arbery looked like a man who had recently burglarized several homes in the area. The Brunswick News, the area’s local paper, reported that there had been only a single break-in in the area in about two months — a gun stolen from a car parked outside a home owned by Travis McMichael, the other suspect.
Bass said this fits the pattern of a “classic lynching,” when perpetrators would often cite some purported offense by the victim as a pretext for violence.
Attorneys for the suspects could not be located.
Many Republicans, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — who called the video “absolutely horrific” — have expressed dismay at the killing.
Ralph Reed, a Christian leader based in Atlanta and founder of the socially conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, called the killing “deeply hurtful” and “a painful reminder of our tortured past.”
“I don’t believe the Georgia of today is the Georgia of the 1950s or ’60s. We’ve come a long way,” Reed said. “But moments like this bring back that past.”
He said leaders from both parties need to work together to address income inequality and health disparities, though he cautioned that Democrats and Republicans often come to different policy prescriptions. He is pushing for school choice programs, for example, which many liberals oppose.
But the nation’s politics remain heavily divided by race. Many black leaders blame Trump for an atmosphere they say gives racists license to speak out and worse; of the 57 African Americans in Congress, 55 are Democrats.
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate, echoed Bass’s point. “Every. single. time,” Scott tweeted. “The excuses pour in — ‘he looked suspicious’ . . . ‘we thought he was committing a crime.’ The fact remains, #AhmaudArbery was hunted down from a pickup truck and murdered in cold blood.”
Both Bass and Scott called for the passage of federal anti-lynching legislation, which has passed in the House but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Several civil rights leaders noted that it took a vigorous social media campaign, and the emergence of a startling video, to bring attention to the shooting and the sluggish investigation that followed.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Sunday said the environment is affecting her family directly. “I have four kids, three of whom are African American boys,” she said. “They are afraid. They are angry.
Hate crimes in the United States have risen since Trump’s 2016 election, which civil rights leaders attribute in part to the president’s divisive language as well as the larger polarization of American politics.
Every major candidate in the recent Democratic presidential primary issued calls for racial justice and worked to appeal to black voters (with varying success). Biden prevailed largely because of his support from the African American community, and his current rhetoric suggests that a focus on racial inequities will be a central part of his message in the fall.
Biden, who served as vice president to the first black president, has promised to appoint a racially diverse cabinet and to nominate the first black woman to the Supreme Court. At least three black women are on his list of possible running mates: Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
Any Democrat hoping to win in November requires the support of nonwhite voters. Barack Obama in 2008 won just 43 percent of the white vote but overcame that deficit by turning out minorities, said Cornell Belcher, who was a pollster for the former president. Obama’s margins among whites in 2012 fell to 39 percent, meaning he had to attract even greater numbers of nonwhites to win.
Hillary Clinton attracted just 37 percent of the white vote and didn’t sufficiently make up the gap with nonwhite voters in her failed attempt to win the White House in 2016.
Political strategists often cite demographic trends that suggest the country will become majority nonwhite in the next two to three decades.
“If we are in fact a democracy — and if in a democracy, the majority rules — there is going to be a transfer of power,” Belcher said. “As we get browner, we see an increase in this racial aversion, we see an increase in these incidents. This is how America tears itself apart.”
Amid these volatile dynamics, several killings over the past decade have attracted enormous attention and crystallized the racial divide. In 2012, teenager Trayvon Martin was shot in Florida, prompting Obama to call for “soul-searching.” In 2014, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. That same year, Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer.
In each case, African Americans mobilized to protest what they saw as brazen racial injustice, while many conservatives framed the incidents as more complex and often sympathized with the challenges facing police officers.
The Arbery shooting appears likely to join this list of painful flash points. But it comes at an even more fraught moment.
Trump has been accused by civil rights activists of insensitivity at best, and racism at worst, throughout his presidency. Following the clash between white supremacists and counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, in 2017, he declared there were “very fine people on both sides.”
In July 2019, Trump, referring to four Democratic congresswomen of color, tweeted that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” In early 2018 he referred to African and other nations as “s---hole countries,” and at one point he suggested a U.S.-born federal judge could not be impartial in a case involving Trump because he was “Mexican.”
Trump has rejected the charges of racism, saying that his presidency has been enormously beneficial to African Americans and other minorities.
Some civil rights activists are pushing for systemic changes to disrupt what they call a society that allows racist behavior.
“This is about a set of written and unwritten rules in this country that incentivizes this type of behavior,” said Rashad Robinson, who heads the Color of Change coalition. “It’s not just the occurrence of a shooting like this. It’s not just the disproportion of deaths that occur from a virus. But it’s all of the ways in which the system is set up.”
He cited discriminatory behavior by bankers on loans to black-owned businesses and the prevalence of minorities in service-
related jobs that can’t be done from home, putting their health at risk.
The pandemic’s devastating impact has shifted the discussion of race in recent weeks from a series of troubling incidents, and the bitterness of the broader political atmosphere, to an ongoing death toll that is disproportionately taking black and Latino lives.
Figures suggest that social distancing rules are being enforced unequally. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, for example, recently released data showing that of 40 people who had been arrested for social distancing violations in the borough, 35 were black, four were Hispanic and one was white.
All of this, many black leaders fear, has resulted in a particularly toxic racial atmosphere, one that the Arbery killing has only aggravated.
“I’m telling you that it’s exacerbated right now,” Watson Coleman said. “I don’t care if you’re black walking down the street with a Bible in your hand — if a white person sees you, there’s a good chance that you’re going to be confronted.”
Sean Sullivan in Washington and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Brunswick, Ga., contributed to this report.