In trial for Arbery killing, a strategic choice to downplay race
By David Leonhardt
The most effective way to achieve racial justice can sometimes be to downplay race.
That may seem like a counterintuitive idea. And it can certainly feel unsatisfying to people who are committed to reducing the toll of racism in the United States. But it is one of the lessons of the murder convictions last week of three white men in Georgia, in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man.
I want to revisit the case because it has a broader relevance to U.S. politics.
By now, you’re probably familiar with the basic facts. Arbery was in a predominantly white neighborhood near his home in coastal Georgia on Feb. 23, 2020, when three men in pickup trucks chased and shot him.
Racism played a clear role in the killing. One of the defendants used a slur shortly after the shooting, according to another defendant. All three had a history of sending online messages tinged with white nationalism.
Nonetheless, the prosecutor in the case, Linda Dunikoski, decided mostly to ignore race during the trial. She accused the defendants of having a racist motive only once, in a single line of her closing argument. She instead portrayed them as lawless figures who killed a young man.
Before the verdicts, some observers criticized the strategy, saying that Dunikoski was weakening her case by ignoring the defendants’ motive. “There were a lot of people who thought that it should have been very central to her argument,” said The New York Times’ Richard Fausset, who covered the killing and the trial. One law professor accused Dunikoski of “whitewashing” the facts. Another professor said that her strategy would be blamed if the defendants were acquitted.
No doubt, it would have been. Dunikoski was deliberately leaving out a big part of the story. But she was doing so for a reason. (Or so it seems; she has not publicly discussed her strategy.) She evidently believed that emphasizing race would be a gift to the defense.
It could cause the jurors — all but one of whom were white — to retreat to their ideological corners. Conservative jurors would be reminded that they often disagree with allegations of racism. Many political moderates disagree sometimes, too, especially if they’re white. On the other hand, any jurors likely to be appalled by the racial nature of the case — three white men killing a Black man in broad daylight — would recognize the role of race without needing to be told about it.
The Anti-Bannon Strategy
It was a miniature version of a tension that runs through U.S. politics.
Progressive activists often point out — accurately — the central role that race and racism play in the U.S. Polls show, for example, that a large percentage of Americans feel racial animus. That animus helped fuel Donald Trump’s political rise, starting with his promotion of the lie that Barack Obama was born in Africa. And racial discrimination continues to shape our economy, schools, criminal justice system and more.
Yet when activists try to combat racism by calling it out, they often struggle to accomplish their goals. Focusing on Trump’s racist behavior did not keep him from winning the presidency. The Black Lives Matter movement has mostly failed to implement its policy agenda on policing. Affirmative-action programs generally lose when they appear on the ballot — including a landslide loss in California last year, helped by opposition from many Latino and Asian voters.
Race-based strategies are especially challenging in a country where living standards have stagnated in recent decades: Working-class families of all races have reason to distrust the notion that they enjoy a privileged lifestyle. No wonder that Steve Bannon, the far-right political figure, once said that he wanted liberals “to talk about racism every day.” When they do, Bannon said, “I got ’em.”
‘Attack the Design’
The Arbery trial offers a reminder that calling out racism is not the only way to battle it. Sometimes, a more effective approach involves appealing to universal notions of fairness and justice.
Another example is child poverty. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was an early advocate of baby bonds — universal savings accounts for children, an idea that helped shape President Joe Biden’s focus on reducing child poverty. The beauty of the policy, Booker told me, is that it substantially reduces racial gaps in child poverty (because children of color are more likely to be poor) while still being inclusive.
“It’s very hard to undo centuries of racial policies by suddenly saying, ‘I’m now going to not be conscious of race in America,’ ” he said. But, he added, “This is a policy that I think can be embraced by you, whoever you are, whatever your background.”
Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black Democrat in Congress, made a similar argument when explaining why he favored a version of slavery reparations that would also help poor white families. “Race is the reason income is what it is,” he told The Washington Post. “This is by design. So attack the design.”
The downside of this approach is clear enough. Given the long history of intense racism in the U.S., universal programs will never fully solve the problem. Of course, policies that fail to get enacted accomplish much less.
Dunikoski’s trial strategy may have felt uncomfortable to anybody repulsed by the defendants’ racism. But imagine how uncomfortable an acquittal would have felt.
Arbery’s family members, notably, were not among Dunikoski’s critics, as Fausset has reported. Even before the verdict, the family liked the prosecution’s approach.