Ahmaud Arbery was killed Feb. 23 in a neighborhood outside the coastal port city of Brunswick, Ga. Until the past few weeks, national media had ignored this case. Cellphone footage, initially posted by a Brunswick radio station, captured the country’s attention, and since then this image depicting Arbery’s death has gone viral.
Now, the world has seen the horrific moment when a black man jogging in a neighborhood is confronted by two white men, one in the bed of a parked pick-up truck and another standing beside the open driver's-side door. The confrontation ends with the tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
This viral image of black death has joined others, including the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Korryn Shandawn Gaines — videos that have been exploited in the national media to depict the assumed criminal nature of black people.
What value is there in circulating a depiction of innocent black death? Such an image does not bring solace to those grieving. One could argue that, as in the cases of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, it doesn’t even speed up the wheels of justice.
Instead these images serve as a fix for America’s cultural addiction to seeing black suffering at the expense of black people’s mental and emotional health, an addiction historically fed by the public spectacles of minstrelsy and lynchings. These images inflict on black Americans the dangerous effects of what clinical psychologist Dr. Thelma Bryant-Davis describe as racially traumatic events, when people who identify with the victim because of a shared identity experience post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Our nightly news anchors issue the routine disclaimer, “We must warn you this video is disturbing.” But is it? If these images are truly disturbing, stop circulating them! black death cannot be normalized or sensationalized. Doing either will allow America to continue to sweep violence against black people under the rug.
These images are not disturbing enough that they change the state of black people in America. These images affirm their presumed subservient social status while creating a hagiography of whiteness. These images are not disturbing enough that they change the tool of black suffering used to enforce the de facto social order of a country still plagued by racial hierarchy. This recent tragic event is yet another example of the inherent biases that people of color experience on a daily basis. Circulating the image of black death does not alter this reality in any way; instead it reifies the social construct of race in America.
These images are not disturbing enough to raise the awareness of the injustice black people experience as a result of America’s original sin of racism. This video is a memento for those who seek to hold on to the supremacy of whiteness in America. These instruments of idolatry must be torn down.
Images of black death create an opportunity for momentary outrage, but this should not be confused with raising the consciousness of everyday citizens to the documented inequalities faced by black people in America. Raising consciousness is the difficult work that society as a whole is called to do in order to repent of the vestiges of chattel slavery and systemic racism. A video should not give us a pass on doing this hard work.
This work requires all of us to recognize the underlying causes that lead to the criminalization of blackness and the ways we are complicit in this enterprise. We must develop genuine relationships, in which we value one another’s humanity and where those in power are willing to sacrifice their privilege to ensure society pursues a more equitable course.
A video will not cause America to begin this work. We have seen videos of black suffering and black death for many years. We must reckon with the ongoing trauma caused by the images of black death that dehumanize black people.
We must affirm the humanity of all people and repent from the beliefs that black people are either criminals or spectacles. From this point forward, we must share images that depict the beauty of black life and reject the viral addiction to images of unjust black death.