A hate crime verdict sends a message on race

A federal jury finds a racist motive in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, helping lift the national conversation.

Black and white pastors in Brunswick, Georgia, set up a tent and asked for prayers during last year's state trial over the death of Ahmaud Arbery.

Many public conversations in the United States not only revolve around race; they often are contentious – from school board meetings over how race is taught in classrooms to the rapper Eminem taking a knee at the Super Bowl’s halftime show. Yet a Feb. 22 guilty verdict against three white men for hate crimes hints that such debates on race need not be a source of division.

The three men had already been convicted in a state court for the 2020 murder of a young Black man named Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging through a neighborhood in Georgia. With the additional verdict by a federal jury on the motive for the killing, the national conversation was able to turn to the deeper issue of racist thinking, not just white-on-Black violence itself.

The reason is that hate crime convictions are rare. Between 2005 and 2019, the U.S. Justice Department prosecuted only 17% of the suspects it investigated for hate crimes. Proving hatred is difficult and the price of failure can be high. As Benjamin Wagner, a former U.S. attorney, told The Washington Post last week, losing a hate crimes case can stoke civil unrest. “You need to be thoughtful and cautious before bringing it,” he said.

High-profile fatal encounters between Black people and either police or vigilantes in recent years have led to a greater understanding of a problem once largely ignored. A survey last year by Stanford University found that Black and white people saw a more urgent need to seek understanding across racial groups despite their fears of being misunderstood.

“What was striking [in the results] was that even though both sides felt these concerns, they also wanted to have these conversations,” said Kiara Sanchez, one of the researchers. “They saw the risks but they also saw the benefits.”

Recent incidents of violence against Black people have also had a galvanizing effect on local communities. In the Georgia city of Brunswick where Mr. Arbery was killed, for example, residents formed a new organization called A Better Glynn (named after the county) to promote civic engagement. During the two trials, Black and Jewish clergy formed a tighter bond of support, not just around the family, but around each other.

These groups seized the moment to repair society. “I wonder, if we move too quickly, will we miss the precious and essential work of change?” Rabbi Rachael Bregman wrote in an essay in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the state trial. “If we avoid the discomfort of this time, if we turn back to what was, we will not have made good on the prayer many have whispered repeatedly; please God, do not let this happen again.”

The jury that came down with the hate crime verdict was itself an example of a different kind of conversation. It consisted of one Hispanic juror, three Black, and eight white jurors.. In shared purpose, they found a common humanity in probing for the underlying thought behind race-related violence. Their conversation helped stimulate a wider and deeper one in the U.S.

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