There were some who thought that the racial divide that has scarred this country since 1619 may finally have been cauterized by the fire of Islamic terrorism on 9/11. After all, those sinister attacks in Manhattan, Washington D.C., and the one thwarted in Shanksville, Pennsylvania were aimed at all Americans regardless of their skin color, creed, or political affiliation. In the aftermath of 9/11, we were never more unified as a people. But when the acrid clouds of smoke had dispersed and the rubble cleared from lower Manhattan, the animus and distrust that began 400 years ago when people from one continent were forcibly brought to another to work for literally slave’s wages, revealed anew that it may well require a corresponding number of years to dispel, if ever.
And so do the racially-laden ships that harbor us continue to pass, both in wary, silent distrust, but just as likely in open, fearful conflict, as they did once again on a sunshiny February day in Brunswick, Georgia when 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was killed while simply going on his daily run, only to be chased and shot to death by two armed white men – a father and son – who told police he looked like a burglary suspect.
News accounts of Arbery’s killing finally went viral on Tuesday, May 5th, but only after a graphic cellphone video appeared to show the incident in all its frightening reality. Yet to date, no arrests have been made or indictments handed down, even though the two men involved have long been identified. As David Byrne of the Talking Heads sang in Once In a Lifetime, “same as it ever was.”
From the days of Strange Fruit to Emmet Till to that rainy February 26th evening in 2012 in Sanford, Florida when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, we see how fellow citizens continue to simply stereotype one another, one side taught to see every black man, whether in droopy-crotched jeans and a baggy hoodie, or just running shorts and a tee-shirt, as a dangerous criminal in waiting, and the other side who views any policeman or baseball cap-wearing, pickup-driver as a potential judge, jury, and executioner.
The world may look with both judgment and pity at America circa 2020, but at least in America, our prejudices are evident, black and white. In traveling around the world over the last four decades following the sport of running, I have seen first-hand the same insecurities and prejudices being manifest in a series of national and tribal “the-way-I-feel-good-about-me-is-to-feel-bad-about-you” divides. I have also seen how the sport of running can help bridge those same divides with a common, at times painful purpose, if only in the throes of that pain.
Thus, when we speak of the equality of man, I know that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote —> all men are created equal. Equal, yes, but not by virtue of what Lincoln called our “better angels”, rather by the banality of our common prejudices and fears. What we bear witness to over and over and over again is just man’s never-ending inhumanity to his fellow man, his own sense of worth generated by the negation of another’s.
As such, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, like so many others before him, and likely the many to follow, isn’t simply an American problem, it’s a human one, today exacerbated by wedge politics in a cynical time and a wanton virus that sees no color, only opportunity in the form of a species still blinded by its original design.