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Long Dirty Toenails
Why American students need to be taught through the lens of Critical Race Theory.
Dr. Gregg Suzanne Ferguson, Executive Director Mothers of Diversity America
Death humbles us all, and death comes for us all; for that reason, in every culture speaking ill of the dead is taboo, if not amoral. “Ni nisi bonum,” is a Latin aphorism which translates to, “Of the dead, speak nothing but good.” Even in the justice system, a cardinal rule of law is, “Audi alteram partem,” which means no one shall be condemned unheard. When the deceased is an innocent victim of the speaker’s actions, speaking ill of them is especially heinous and abominable.
This sentiment escaped the mind of a lawyer in Georgia in November 2021 as she described the murder victim, Mr. Ahmaud Arberry, of her client to the jury and spectators in the courtroom. The courtroom included Mr. Arberry’s mother, Ms. Wanda Cooper-Jones who eventually struck back in her impact statement this week.
But in the November defense statement, broadcast world-wide, Laura Hogue, the criminal defense attorney for Gregory McMichael accused of murdering the young jogger, Ahmaud Arberry, chose to describe the state of Mr. Arberry’s toenails in arguing for the innocence of McMichael.
Would the jurors to whom she appealed be influenced by envisioning the young athlete “in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails,” and acquit her client?
Would she be able to dispel the state’s claim that Mr. Arberry was an avid jogger by calling to question his hygiene?
Was she suggesting that her client and his accomplices had short, clean toenails and could somehow tell Mr. Arberry’s were not? And was she implying that the state of Mr. Arberry’s toenails justified his execution?
Mr. Arberry’s toenails were a part of the state of the body of a beautiful, brown-skinned man whose chest also sustained a gaping hole after his encounter with three white men who denied him peace to enjoy a jog through the streets of their neighborhood. And now Hogue denied him the peace to rest.
The murderers’ actions, and the words of the defense attorney compel a historical examination of the rationales they used through the lens of Critical Race Theory (CRT) which will benefit the young who may lack the context CRT offers.
The saying, “Good fences make good neighbors,” implies that strong boundaries between different homes and their inhabitants keeps the peace. In the American landscape, those boundaries—fences, gates, walls, train tracks, waterways, expressways, mountain passes—means it should be hard to pass through those thresholds for outsiders.
From a CRT perspective, it is important to have the historical context of the ‘good neighbor’ reframed in the racial disparity in which it was steeped. White entitlement to real estate, home ownership and the equity and legacy they afford was a weaponized hallmark of racism in America. Preserving the purity of “community and neighborhood” is integral to preserving a sense of white identity and privilege.
During centuries of enslavement, blacks in America, for better or worse, were denied the booty from the government sanctioned robbery of land from Native Indigenous tribes residing here. The Indian Removal Act in the 1830’s, better known as, “The Trail of Tears” forced assimilated Native Indigenous people to walk from Georgia to Oklahoma to free up lands to white slaveholders in the south. At around the same time, the Homestead Act, awarded European settlers 160 Acres of land wrestled from Native Indigenous tribes in the western United States to those who promised to improve the land for five years and file a deed. From 1868 to 1934, nearly 10 percent of the nation’s land –over 270 million acres—was awarded to over 1.5 million white families. There was also the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 intended for the formerly enslaved blacks and white union loyalists, but it was overtaken by Confederates within the first year. Essentially, over 1.6 million white families versus 6,000 black families were awarded land through the two Acts. Ultimately, it is estimated that a quarter of American whites with wealth and property can trace their inheritance back to those entitlement programs.
During a more modern era, blacks applying for home loans – many using the GI Bill-- from 1930 to the 2,000’s were redlined—ineligible for credit because the banks and the FDIC would not guarantee loans to them. This system added to ensuring the preservation of whiteness in many communities and the inequities in homeownership that are prevalent now.
In addition, even when Blacks were successful in becoming homeowners, the “Good Fences” separating their communities from white communities were drawn up by local legislators to include impassable barriers that reinforced the divides by walling off communities, containing their expansion or physically isolating them. Segregation has been built into the physical environment in America, and in Georgia that was the reality for the two communities brought together by a free-spirited jog.
Between Satilla Shores where Mr. Arberry was attacked, and Fancy Bluffs where he lived, is a four-lane highway physically separating them. Although median incomes and home values were the same, the racial makeup was very different. Yet, in the mind and worldview of Gen Zs like Mr. Arberry, those cultural divisions were as indistinguishable as a swipe on a cell phone screen. Mr. Arberry was a young, southern, black man aware of, yet unthreatened by, others’ point of view. He could live across the street from the “Don’t tread on me” flag of his white neighbor’s demonstrable political views, but still smile and say hello to her each day.
Yet, on this February day, when Mr. Arberry dashed across Route 17 into the adjacent community, he had no idea he had breached the “Good Fences” rule and would face the inculcated bias and racism of agitated white watchmen who were infuriated by his audacity to take his freedom seriously.
Hogue described Mr. Arberry as a trespasser jeopardizing the way of life in Satilla Shores. She assumed the nearly all-white jury would feel the collective racist twinge as she reminded them of the dreams of people like her father, undoubtedly a white man like her, who, “wanted to see his family grow up in a safe, secure home surrounded by a community of people who cared about each other”—Bandaids, block parties and casseroles, blah, blah, blah. She tied in the Satilla Shores homeowners and homebuilder, Larry English who all should have “the sort of life we all have the right to seek. . .we work hard for our stuff, and no one has the right to take it."
She contrasted this bucolic, “Manifest Destiny” vision with her notoriously biased physical and psychological description of Mr. Arberry which included her presumption of his intent. She asked, “Can anyone believe that Ahmaud Arberry was doing a ‘lookie-loo’?” She concluded that “there was no legitimate reason for Ahmaud Arberry to be plundering there. He had no friends there. He was a recurring nighttime intruder.”
Mr. Arberry already had a home, quite possibly better than a lot in Satilla Shores. What Mr. Arberry was, is a dreamer. Like so many others from all walks of life, he was inspired by this new build, this new life, being constructed in his midst. He was possibly envisioning his role in creating this reality for himself or for other families. Mr. Arberry had hopes of being an electrician. Anyone in the construction industry can tell you that understanding the phases of a build and where your skill can be utilized is fundamental to your trade, and profoundly motivating for your dreams.
Any American student should be able to understand how running towards your dreams can trample hatred and borders and those good fences erected to keep them from you.
Hogue pursued the argument that because Mr. Arberry’s presence in this white neighborhood was “frightening and unsettling” he should have known how he was perceived. Her atrocious racism allowed her to tell the jury that “he knew why he was being chased because he was guilty.” Guilty of what? Guilty of exercising and dreaming on a bright, beautiful day in February? Guilty of the freedom to jog through the streets of this country, built on the backs of his ancestors, where he is entirely and irrevocable entitled to dart around “grandparents on golf carts, kids on bikes and couples walking their dogs in our small-town neighborhoods?” He deserved no less. Hogue’s twisted concepts of Mr. Arberry’s American freedom was drenched in a history she thought her white jury would instinctually understand.
Freedom is a beautiful concept, and for almost three centuries it was unfathomable to the vast majority of blacks in America who were held against their will in the institution of slavery. As unreachable as it seemed, the concept of freedom was irresistible to many of them who risked their lives to find it.
From a CRT perspective, it is important to know that because of this runaway problem, white southerners were effective in convincing Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Acts starting in 1793. This meant the incentives for re-capturing runaway slaves in the south were extended to those runaways who made it as far as free states in the north. Later Fugitive Slave Acts made it legal for not only the hired bounty hunters and southern overseers to reap a reward, but also vigilante slave catchers who would face no penalties for returning people of color to enslavement-- where their feet could be chopped off to prevent them from running away again.
Hogue explained that “the police can’t be everywhere. . . a good neighborhood is always policing itself." The McMichael’s and Bryan invoked the spirit of those vigilante ancestors as they mounted their F- 150 horsepower trucks emblazoned with Confederate plates to chase down this black man, Mr. Arberry, running away. Emboldened by the white supremacist Ideals that still define this nation, there is no doubt they called him the N-word in their rage and desperation to contain him—they admitted to calling him that as their shotgun blast still smoldered in his chest. When the police came, these vigilantes were confident in their shared oath –explaining away his death as collateral to an attempted capture. Hogue told the jury, “He died because for whatever inexplicable illogical reason, instead of staying where he was. . whatever overwhelming reason he had to avoid being captured that day and being arrested by the police, he chose to fight. He. Chose. To. Fight.”
Yes. He. Chose. To. Fight. for his freedom and with no socks to cover his feet. Through the lens of CRT every American student should be able to explain that Hogue expected Mr. Arberry to surrender to the 21st-century slave catchers. . . and then what?
Critical Race Theory has been the way historically oppressed people of color have maintained "true north in a crooked room" when dealing with the practices of discrimination and the lethal effects of racism in America. It is too important and honest a perspective to be kept from all American students.
Let. Them. Learn