Opinion | When Black Men Meet White Communities

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For all of American history, the criminal justice system has considered Black men in white communities dangerous. With the Arbery verdict, could that be changing?
Of course, the "wrong" neighborhoods and streets are those that are predominately white, many of whose denizens aim to maintain an exclusively white community. Some people who live in these neighborhoods want their schools, restaurants, business owners, delivery people — and politicians — to all be white. They also want the criminal justice system to maintain a white dominance in everything from who holds the gavel on the judge's bench to who sits in the jury box.

This is why the Arbery killing is such a throwback; it's an example of classic racism baked into social institutions. Citizen's arrest laws, and the criminal justice system in a corresponding fashion, perpetuate and sanction the protection of white communities from people who look like Arbery. These laws let people zero in on perceptions of criminalization, and then subsequently use self-defense laws, such as "stand your ground," as justification for their use of force.

Demonstrators protest the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery at the Glynn County Courthouse in May 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia. | Sean Rayford/Getty Images

My research has focused on the experiences of Black men in predominantly white communities and their experiences with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In a quantitative and qualitative study, I found that middle-class Black men were significantly less likely than others to exercise in predominantly white neighborhoods. That means they're much less likely to take a jog through their own streets. Why? Their blackness becomes weaponized. Even when they're unarmed and aren't committing any crime, they're perceived as a threat — and that subsequently justifies surveillance and use of force.

In situations similar to the killing of Ahmaud, white people are over eight times more likely to be found not guilty when claiming self-defense if the victim is Black, compared to when the victim is not Black. These killings speak to a key social psychological concept: subjective…
Rashawn Ray
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