Posted on May 27, 2020

The Illusion of Certainty

Coleman Hughes, City Journal, May 25, 2020

The shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man from Georgia, has reignited the national debate about racial profiling. On February 23, Arbery entered an empty construction site in the city of Brunswick, lingering for several minutes before leaving. Shortly afterward, Gregory McMichael, a white ex-cop who lived down the street, noticed Arbery running. He grabbed his gun, enlisted his son Travis, and pursued.

After he and his father had chased Arbery in a truck for four minutes, Travis exited the driver’s side and confronted Arbery, shotgun in hand. The video of what followed, captured by William Bryan Jr., a neighbor aiding in the chase, leaves much to be desired. The beginning of the confrontation, when Travis fires his first shot, is completely obscured by the truck. When the camera picks them up again, they are fighting over the shotgun; Arbery must have grabbed it, either just before or just after the first gunshot. As they continue struggling over the gun, Travis fires twice more, and Arbery goes down.

For two months, Arbery’s death garnered no national attention, and no arrests were made. But in early May, Gregory McMichael released Bryan’s video of the incident, apparently hoping to dispel two false rumors: that the truck had a Confederate flag on it, and that Arbery was shot in the back. The video sparked a national outcry, leading prosecutors to charge both McMichaels with felony murder and aggravated assault, and Bryan with felony murder and false imprisonment.

Clearly, something went wrong in the ten minutes leading up to Arbery’s death, and for many, that something is racism. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned the “brutal murder,” reminiscent of the “darkest chapters of our history.” Comedian Ellen DeGeneres wrote that Arbery was “hunted down and killed for no reason other than the color of his skin.” Others have likened the incident to a lynching.

While it’s tempting to assume that the McMichaels were motivated by racism, the only intellectually honest position is to admit that we do not know what motivated them—at least, not yet. On the one hand, it’s certainly possible that the McMichaels would not have pursued a white suspect under the same circumstances. On the other, contextual facts make the allegation of racism less compelling.

To start, there is a plausible, non-racist explanation for why the McMichaels pursued Arbery. An unidentified black man (it’s unclear if it was Arbery) had trespassed on the same construction site four times—once in October, November, December, and early February. The absentee homeowner caught these incidents on his motion-activated security camera. After the December incident, Gregory McMichael offered to help catch the serial trespasser. Local police subsequently texted the homeowner, advising him to reach out to McMichael “day or night” if he picked up motion on his security camera—the implication being that McMichael could respond faster than they could.

While McMichael’s eagerness to fight crime proactively might seem strange at first glance, it begins to make sense when you consider the crime problem facing Brunswick residents. Though commentators have mostly downplayed it, Brunswick is among the most crime-ridden cities in America. In 2018, the Brunswick crime rate was 6,311 crimes per 100,000 residents. For comparison, the crime rate in the Austin section of Chicago—which NBC news dubs Chicago’s “most dangerous neighborhood”—was 6,528 per 100,000; the U.S. national average was 2,580. What’s more, McMichael was not the only neighbor who offered to help. In November, Diego Perez, who lives next door to the construction site, texted the homeowner: “If you catch someone on your cameras, let me know right away, I can respond in mere seconds.”

Perhaps the McMichaels pursued Arbery solely because of racial bias. Or perhaps they pursued him because of their arrangement with local police, and with the homeowner, to respond immediately upon seeing the trespasser. Or perhaps their motives were mixed. Those who pretend to know with certainty what motivated the McMichaels are deceiving themselves.