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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Black people are dying to know

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Tribune News Service

That video broke my heart.

If you’ve seen it, you need no further explanation. You know exactly what video I’m talking about and why it shattered me. If you haven’t, be advised that the clip in question depicts the last seconds in the life of Ahmaud Arbery. He was just 25, a young man out jogging on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Glynn County, Georgia.

A white man, 64-year-old former district attorney’s investigator Gregory McMichael, saw him running and thought he looked like the suspect in a series of local break-ins. In other words, he was black. McMichael and his 34-year-old son Travis armed themselves, jumped in a truck and took off.

The video, taken from a trailing vehicle, shows Arbery jogging toward the waiting truck. The elder McMichael told police he and his son called out to Arbery to wait because they wanted to talk to him. He claimed that Arbery instead “began to violently attack” Travis. In the video, they are seen wrestling over Travis’ rifle.

Three shots are heard. Mortally wounded, Arbery tries to run, but his legs buckle and he falls on his face.

This happened on Feb. 23; the McMichaels were not arrested. Two prosecutors recused themselves, citing professional ties to the father. Before doing so, one of them declared there was no probable cause to arrest this two-man lynch mob because the law gave Travis McMichael the right to use deadly force to defend himself. Apparently, Arbery had no corresponding right to protect himself from an unknown assailant with a gun.

It was not until Thursday, two days after release of the video triggered a national chorus of condemnation raining down on the tiny southeast Georgia county, that the McMichaels were finally jailed. It had taken 74 days. Seventy-four days. And will that bring justice? This is America, so don’t hold your breath.

If that sounds bitter, well, bitterness seems an entirely appropriate response to what was captured in that video. Meaning not just another murder of another unarmed man, but yet another iteration of the eternal, infernal arrogance that infects so much of white America, this notion that a white man or woman has the divine right to require any given black person to justify their presence and activities.

“Why are you barbecuing in that public park?”

“Why are you swimming in that public pool?”

“Why are you jogging down that public street bothering no one, minding your own damn business?”

All white people? No. Of course not. But more white people than many white people would readily concede.

And the very need to place that disclaimer, the recognition that without it – and likely, even with it – some white readers will go away clutching their pearls about my supposed “racism” toward them, speaks volumes. Racism is not hurt feelings. It is systematized oppression that bars you from opportunity and steers you toward calamity every waking day from cradle to grave, that allows you to be murdered on camera, in cold blood in broad daylight – and your assailants to be home in time for dinner.

Trayvon, Tamir, Michael, Philando, John, Amadou, Ahmaud … it’s enough. It’s too much.

And all the “good” white people who needed the disclaimer, who needed their blamelessness acknowledged, must understand that it’s not enough that you’re able to avoid getting caught on video being a racist jerk.

No, ask yourself: What am I doing to dismantle a system of privilege that oppresses others while advantaging me every waking day from cradle to grave? What am I doing to help my brothers and sisters be free?

Black people are dying to know.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91st Avenue, Doral, FL 33172. Write to him via email at

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