David Leonhardt, who appears from his thumbnail photo to be white, offers an interesting argument that had the prosecutor in the Ahmaud Arbery case, Linda Dunikoski, highlighted the defendants’ evident racism, she might have lost the case, in which three white men were convicted of pursuing and killing a Black man in a predominantly white neighborhood, by generating a backlash from a largely white jury whose “[c]onservative jurors would be reminded that they often disagree with allegations of racism.”
That sounds extreme; Leonhardt is responding to critiques which insist that Dunikoski should have emphasized race, unmistakably implying a hate crime:
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.
I will grant that Leonhardt has a point. A problem is that his argument focuses solely on one counterfactual, in which Dunikoski had emphasized race and the jury had failed to convict. That’s only one counterfactual and while we can agree it certainly would have been an undesirable outcome, there are other counterfactuals and the simple fact is that we can never know what would have happened had Dunikoski chosen any other course.
An argument that rests on what we don’t know is not necessarily a wrong argument, but it is an inherently weak argument. And as we see from the outcome of the Kyle Rittenhouse case, this is an argument we need to get right. Leonhardt gets more interesting with other examples:
Focusing on [Donald] 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.”
Racism is a huge part of the inequality in this country. I’ll refrain from second-guessing Dunikoski because she got her conviction, but one thing the Black Panthers and other Black activists of that era often got right yet modern activists too often neglect is that racism is only one part—Scott Sernau refers here to a “Gordian knot”—of social inequality.
Inequality is a huge—beyond comprehension huge—problem. In critical theory, we distinguish between elites—combining overlapping lists, I include political, economic, military, and religious elites—and nearly everyone else as in some way “colonized.”
Not a lot of people who lack my particular educational background will be prepared to articulate that. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t some way, somehow feel it. And when we too loudly insist on focusing on a single manifestation of inequality—in this case, and in many other cases, race—we are likely to neglect the others, like gender, like class, like sexual orientation, like gender identity, like age, like physical ability, like just about every means we can identify, like those we don’t yet generally recognize, such as species, like even those we haven’t yet identified, of distinguishing “us” from “them.”
I said that inequality is a huge—beyond comprehension huge—problem. In referring to strands of social inequality as a “Gordian knot,” Sernau means to suggest that they are hopelessly and inseparably entangled. The only solution is to cut the knot, because in attempting only to extract one strand, inevitably, we will add to the injustice other subaltern groups suffer; we will, in fact, repeat the mistake of the Soviet Union, which was not, in Emma Goldman’s account, a communist society for the simple reason that instead of making people equal, the revolutionaries had merely inverted the authoritarian hierarchy, putting some former subaltern folks in charge at the expense of the rulers in the former regime.
Conservatives object to what they call “equalitarianism,” insisting upon linking diversity of talent to unequal outcomes. It is as if they mean by this that some people, on account of particular attributes, whether relevant or not, are particularly talented at being destitute, at being stigmatized, at being raped, at being killed.
The solution to inequality is equality. Inescapably, that’s equality for everyone. But it’s hard to see that starting from just the Arbery case or even the terrible context in which it occurs.