Editor’s Note: Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire, a news blog covering the Black Diaspora. Dr. Burton is co-editor of the book “Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability” and a faculty member in Film and Media at Emory University. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
When Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan Jr. were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery on Wednesday, I felt like I could finally exhale.
Like many Black people in this country, I had been waiting for the verdict with bated breath. That is part of the Black experience in America – holding one’s breath, hoping for justice and yet not expecting it. To say there was a collective sigh of relief when those guilty verdicts were announced Wednesday is an understatement. Many wept, shouted, hugged one another and breathed.
We hold our breath not just when the issue is a violent crime. It’s waiting for local and state elections in places where Republicans are committed to rolling back the clock on civil and human rights and disenfranchising Black voters and other minorities. In Georgia, for example, Republicans passed a new congressional map that flips the Democratic district that Congresswoman Lucy McBath, a Black woman, represents. And in 2021 alone, 19 states have passed 33 new laws that make it harder to vote, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center of Justice.
We hold our breath waiting for our Black sons and daughters to make it home alive from wherever they are – school, church, birthday parties, the grocery store, the mall, a walk in the park – because some hateful White person could kill them without regard or rebuke – and get away with it.
Black people in the US can be walking home from the store, jogging outside, sitting at home eating ice cream or asking for help – and be killed. And when this kind of tragedy happens, Black victims are too often regarded with suspicion, rather than sympathy.
This is why we hold our breath.
When I first started hearing rumblings of what happened to Ahmaud Arbery in April of last year, I was shocked. At the time, I lived in East Atlanta, about four hours away from Brunswick, Georgia, where Arbery was jogging when he was chased by three White men and fatally shot. For months, no arrests had been made.
When I tried to learn more, I couldn’t find much about it in the news. As a journalist and blogger, I started digging into what happened. One of my sources hipped me to the situation in Glynn County and I reported what I found on my news blog, The Burton Wire.
Black Press USA Newswire picked up my story and circulated it to their member publications. News editors I had worked with at major news publications called and asked me what was happening in Georgia. I told them what I knew and sent them my notes because it was more important to me to get the word out than to “own the story.” These editors then sent reporting teams down to South Brunswick and the rest is history.
Arbery’s story was picked up by national media outlets, which meant greater scrutiny and coverage. Arbery’s family had already been pushing for justice, refusing to believe that their son had been killed while committing a burglary, as the McMichaels said they suspected. They hired an attorney, talked about the case and worked with activists to raise awareness about finding out what really happened to Ahmaud.
This is why we hold our breath.
It should not take all of this effort to get authorities to investigate the killing of a Black person, but often it does – and not just South of the Mason Dixon line. Two prosecutors ended up recusing themselves from Arbery’s case, and one has since been indicted on charges of violating her oath as a public officer and obstructing a police officer. If Arbery’s family hadn’t pushed for justice, and the video of his killing hadn’t been leaked by a lawyer who the McMichaels consulted and if local news outlets and the independent Black press hadn’t elevated this story, Arbery would likely have been taken from his family and community with no recourse or accountability.
This is why we hold our breath.
Black people have learned time and time again that our lives hold little value in a country that our ancestors’ unpaid labor and brutalized bodies built. We rarely expect justice from a system that imprisons Black Americans at roughly five times the rate of White Americans, according to a Sentencing Project report published in October based on available data on people sentenced to state prisons. This is also a system where Black people convicted of a crime are more likely than White people to be later found innocent, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The historic failure of some prosecutors to bring charges against White people who have lynched or killed Black boys, girls, men and women, whether they be trans and cis, for being Black in the wrong place and at the wrong time is why we hold our breath.
While many Americans think cases like those of Emmett Till, George Stinney, Jr. and Lena Baker are part of America’s racist past, Black Americans know this is part of our present. We carry the stress of knowing that we can be wiped off the face of the Earth at any time, in any place and for any reason – and justice could be denied.
As Black independent journalists and bloggers, we get lumped in with “the media,” which is often accused of a lack of objectivity or cultural competency, and of making Blacks invisible when we’re at our best and hypervisible when we are at our worst. We are out here doing this work and trying to elevate stories like Arbery’s and the suspicious death of Kendrick Johnsoin order to make the world a more fair and just place for African Americans. The stress of doing this type of necessary work, in the midst of living as Black people in America, is why we hold our breath.
The guilty verdicts for Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers communicates that justice is not always deferred or denied for Black people. It sends the important message that Black lives do in fact matter in the eyes of the law. Ahmaud Arbery’s life matters. Ahmaud Arbery’s family matters. Ahmaud Arbery’s community matters.
This is why we exhale – if only for a moment.