This column was written before the killing of George Floyd on May 25. It is with deep sadness that we reflect on the patterns of violence and racism that continue to repeat and we call upon our God of justice to bring hope to our aching world.
You’ve probably never heard of Richard Demsick.
On May 9, 2020, Richard Demsick went for a two-and-a-half mile run in his neighbourhood in Vero Beach, Florida. Demsick was running shirtless, with a ball cap on backwards and was carrying a flat-screen television under his arm. Although the neighbourhood had recently had a series of break-ins, no one stopped him to ask what he was doing.
You’ve probably heard of Ahmaud Arbery.
In February 2020, Arbery was shot dead while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia after being chased by two men – Gregory and Travis McMichael – who said he looked like a break-in suspect. Not many people knew about the shooting until a video went viral showing the McMichaels chasing Arbery in their pickup truck. In the video, Travis McMichael can be seen jumping out of the truck holding a shotgun, struggling with Arbery and shooting him three times.
The McMichaels were not immediately charged because they told the police they thought Arbery looked like a man who was behind a series of break-ins. They thought the fact that he was running looked “suspicious.” Only after the video surfaced were they charged with murder.
While Arbery had briefly stopped to look inside a home under construction, he was emptyhanded while he ran. On the other hand, even though he had a TV under his arm, people in the neighbourhood merely waved at Demsick.
There are, of course, differences between the two men. Arbery was 25, and an apprentice electrician. Demsick is 34 and a former pastor. Arbery lived in Georgia. Demsick lives in Florida.
And Arbery was black. Demsick is white.
Demsick recorded himself running through the neighbourhood on a video that’s been viewed more than a million times. In it, he says: “All right, I figured it out. I've got my hat on backwards, I'm shirtless, like I'm on some episode of Cops. I'm running with a TV. Someone's going to stop me now, for sure. ‘Cause if not, what was the problem with Ahmaud?”
There are two things happening in the Arbery story. The first is pretty obvious: racism. A black guy running through a neighbourhood is immediately perceived to be suspicious by a couple of white guys because he “matches the description” of another break-in suspect.
The second thing happening in the Arbery story – as pointed out by Demsick – is white privilege. That term gets a lot of white people’s backs up. It doesn’t mean “white people never have problems,” it just means that white people have certain advantages over people who are the objects of racism – specifically the absence of suspicion and other negative reactions that people who are objects of racism experience.
Demsick’s run is a powerful illustration of that phenomenon. Despite being incredibly suspicious, he was not suspected of anything. As Demsick later wrote on Twitter: “White Privilege does not mean that white people don’t struggle. It means the low bar of treating people with common decency is not a privilege every group in America is able to enjoy.”
Some would point out that Arbery stopped in at a construction site, which made him look suspicious. I’ve walked into homes under construction countless times. No one has shot me, so far. And Arbery was studying to be an electrician, after all. Others would point out Arbery’s struggle with McMichael is what got him shot. I’m not sure I’d passively let a couple of guys run at me with shotguns, either.
In fact, asking questions like those – trying to find a reason for the murder that doesn’t fit a racial narrative – is another kind of white privilege. We white folks don’t like to admit that there are different rules for white people and black people. We Christians, particularly, want to believe that, since we’re all made in the image of God, we’re all treated the same way.
But when we know that’s not true – if we come to truly understand what this case and so many others show us about the gap between how God sees humanity and how we see each other – I think we are called to be courageous. We cannot stay silent. We cannot sit on the sidelines. We are called, instead, to walk (or run) in someone else’s shoes.