Today there is a national outcry about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The public condemnation has forced a belated response. Those accused of his murder finally have been arrested. His murder has become a global embarrassment for Whites.
For Blacks, however, it is another humiliation, a continuing terror. It is the normal silence, however, that condemns thousands of African Americans to unjust deaths and millions to shattered lives. When the camera turns away, the savage injustice that now embarrasses Whites becomes simply business as usual.
The horror of Arbery’s murder is now well-known. The 25-year-old Black man went for a jog down the middle of the street in the middle of the day on February 23. Two White men decided he was suspicious, hunted him down and shot him point-blank.
Local law enforcement had video evidence of the crime. Yet no arrest was made until 74 days later, two months and two weeks after the murder. Local authorities chose not to act. Two U.S. senators said nothing. The White church—that had blessed slavery, segregation, and apartheid in South Africa—was silent.
As the public outrage grew, arrests were made. Never forget, as one commentator noted, the authorities did not make the arrests because they saw the incriminating video. They made the arrests because we saw the video. Embarrassed and faced with an aroused community and an international scandal, they finally acted.
So it goes. African Americans suffer in silence the savage injuries of institutionalized racism.
We live in northern ghettos—driven there in the early part of the last century by terrorism—most strikingly by the Ku Klux Klan and its signature lynchings.
The Equal Justice Initiative reports there were 4,084 lynchings of Blacks in the South from 1877 to 1950. The Klan, embraced by and often made up of the White gentry of the South, often gathered at their churches to organize the public lynchings.
They terrorized Blacks to end the multiracial coalitions that grew up in Reconstruction and to take back control of their states.
The lynchings and violence were greeted with silence, if not approval. White authorities, White churches, and White society turned its head and sometimes applauded in approval.
Fleeing north, Blacks were redlined into ghettos, shut out from the best jobs as discrimination closed doors at every turn. Even today, African Americans are still the last hired and first fired. We as African Americans suffer from the worst poverty, the highest unemployment, the highest childhood hunger and malnutrition, and the most inadequate health care. This reality is sustained by the silence of White elites, the silence of the White church, the silence of the evangelicals, and the silence of the best-intentioned citizens.
Then, the virus hits, and its most lethal effect is on those who are vulnerable: the elderly, the sick, the hungry, and those with diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and obesity. It hits hardest among the suddenly proclaimed “essential workers” who do the work that previously was largely invisible: the bus drivers, grocery clerks, nurses, and medical aides. Not surprisingly, African Americans make up a disproportionate number of those killed or infected by the virus.
The racial disparities are so stark that they have gained international attention. Pundits express shock and outrage at the reports as if they were surprised by the results. Editorials demand reform. Politicians call for action. The informed public is embarrassed.
But little happens. The rescue packages passed by Congress send most of the money to the largest companies and the most affluent investors. Banks are saved; the post office—with a large minority workforce—is starved. Hunger spreads. Any expansion of food stamps is blocked.
Arrested for leading nonviolent protests against Jim Crow segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his letter from the Birmingham jail expressing his grave disappointment with the “White moderate” and the White church. He suggested that the “great stumbling block” for African Americans seeking their freedom was not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the White moderate “who is more devoted to order than to justice.”
He decried a religious community “largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.”
The virus didn’t discriminate. The society enforced the discrimination; the virus just preyed upon its victims. We have gone too long and struggled too hard to adjust to the reality that it is dangerous to be Black while jogging or to be Black in a pandemic.
It isn’t enough to express dismay when the newspapers highlight the horrors. We need leaders and citizens of conscience who will act and not rest until justice is done.
Jesse Jackson writes commentary and is the founder of the Rainbow/PUSH organization.