Opinion: The slurs and texts of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers reflect the persistent racism in our society
“Travis McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael; and their friend William “Roddie” Bryan have already been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for the Feb. 23, 2020, homicide; the McMichaels were given no chance of parole. Now all three are back in court, being tried on federal hate-crimes charges, and prosecutors have introduced into evidence text messages and social media posts to demonstrate that racial hatred was indeed a motivating factor in Arbery’s killing.
In January 2019, Travis McMichael was making plans to meet a friend identified as N.J. at a Cracker Barrel. When N.J. arrived first at the restaurant, he texted McMichael that a number of Black people were there. McMichael texted back: “Need to change the name from Cracker Barrel to [n-word] Bucket.”
Two months later, Travis McMichael was texting with someone else, identified only as H.B., who complained that while bar-hopping the previous evening he had encountered too many Black people. “Zero [n-word] work with me,” McMichael replied, apparently referring to his job. “They ruin everything. That’s why I love what I do now. Not a [n-word] in sight.”
Another text exchange involving Travis McMichael included a photo of a disabled man wearing a T-shirt that said “At least I’m not a [n-word].” And in his social media accounts, FBI analysts — who unearthed this cornucopia of racism — found a video clip of a Black child dancing that had been overdubbed with a racist song titled “Alabama [n-word].”
Are you sensing a pattern here?
Investigators were unable to crack into Greg McMichael’s iPhone to access his texts, but they did find a Facebook post in which he portrayed Black people as lazy and looking only for government handouts.
As for Bryan, the feds managed to access his texts and they found, well, just what you might expect. He appeared to have a particular grievance about the federal holiday that honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.. On MLK Day in 2019, he messaged someone that “I’m working so all the [n-word] can take the day off.” The following year on MLK Day, he complained about the “monkey parade over there” in downtown Brunswick, Ga., the coastal town where Aubrey and his killers lived.
When Bryan’s daughter began a relationship with a Black man, he said in a message that she was “dating a [n-word] now.” He also referred to the man as a “monkey.” And on the day of Arbery’s killing, according to prosecutors, Bryan told authorities that he saw Arbery “running and knew he had to be a criminal.”
As I said, it’s no great surprise that men who carried out a modern-day lynchingwould have racist views. And it’s not a crime to harbor or express racist sentiments — nor should it be.
But I’m highlighting the vile words of Arbery’s killers for the elucidation of anyone who might believe that this kind of raw, unapologetic racism is a thing of the past. For the education of anyone who imagines that U.S. history can be taught in schools without teaching Black history, or that Black history can be taught without making anyone the slightest bit uncomfortable. For the benefit of anyone who fantasizes that we inhabit a nation where all individuals are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
We will never reach that point until we deal honestly and forthrightly with the reality of persistent racism. It’s not all out in the open, such as it was when I was young in South Carolina and White people used the n-word — I hate that euphemism, but I hate the actual word more — in front of Black people without hesitation or embarrassment. But racism is not trying terribly hard to hide, either, and it’s not going away.
The recent controversy over richer-than-Croesus podcaster Joe Rogan, who used the n-word repeatedly, missed the point. It’s not that he spewed racism (and misogyny, and covid-19 misinformation, and all manner of other ugliness). It’s that there is an audience of millions of listeners who can’t wait to lap that stuff up.
I have to remain hopeful, though only because I see no viable alternative. Yes, we have made progress on race. But we have a long, long way to go.“