Jemar Tisby on Ahmaud Arbery Died for the Indefensible Principle of White Control

People participate in a rally May 8, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia, to protest the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man. Two men have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. He is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.


In Genesis 4, Cain kills his brother Abel out of anger and jealousy. He lured his sibling out into a field and murdered him. Then God confronts Cain and asks him where his brother is. Cain indignantly answers with a question that reverberates down through the millennia, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In our day in Brunswick, Georgia, two white men saw a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, out for a jog and thought the worst. They waited for him, confronted him and killed him, proving what many know and what many try to deny: white people don’t serve as their brother’s keeper but, often, as their brother’s controller.

The Hebrew word for “keeper”(שׁמר) can mean to guard or protect. To “keep” one’s brother, or more broadly, one’s neighbor, means to look out for their well-being. It means to stand alongside them as an advocate when they face difficulties and dehumanization. It means to express tangible solidarity as a sign that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.

The system of white supremacy corrupts the relationship between white people and people of color. Instead of keeping their black brothers or sisters, white people seek to control them. It is a short journey from controlling black bodies to killing them.

The alleged murder happened Feb. 23 when Arbery ran past two white men, a father-son duo named Gregory and Travis McMichael, in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, a small town near the Georgia coast. They reflexively assumed that Arbery was the man responsible for a string of burglaries in the area even though no such crimes had been reported in weeks. One grabbed a shotgun, another picked up a pistol, and they pursued.

Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated family photo. Courtesy photo

The video shows Arbery jogging down the street as a white pickup truck blocks his path. The younger McMichael stands outside the truck with his shotgun. As Arbery approaches, shouts are heard, and an altercation occurs. Three shotgun blasts later, Arbery collapses to the ground.

The video emerged on May 5 and immediately sparked outrage. Within two days, the McMichaels had been arrested, after walking around free for more than two months.

What would make two ordinary citizens think they needed to take it upon themselves to get guns and pursue a black person out for a jog? If they suspected a crime had occurred, why not let law enforcement handle the situation? What role did race play in the entire scenario?

These questions all have echoes in the past. When it comes to controlling and policing black bodies, the history is as long as the nation itself.

In an article for Black Perspectives, historian Keri Leigh Merritt details the origins of professional policing in America. Prior to the Civil War, few towns had standing police forces. After the Civil War and emancipation, however, the white owner class still wanted cheap labor. They and many others wanted to re-entrench white supremacy.

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Source: Religion News Service