Coleman Hughes joins Brian Anderson to discuss the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, the widespread claims that his alleged murderers were motivated by racism, and public reaction to the killing—the subjects of Hughes’s article, “The Illusion of Certainty.”
Ahmaud Arbery’s violent death at the hands of Gregory and Travis McMichael has sparked nationwide outrage and reignited the debate over racial profiling. But “while it’s tempting to assume that the McMichaels were motivated by racism,” writes Hughes, “the only intellectually honest position is to admit that we do not know what motivated them—at least, not yet.”
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to 10 Blocks. I'm your host Brian Anderson and joining us on today's show is Coleman Hughes. Coleman is the newest contributing editor at City Journal and he's also a brand new fellow at the Manhattan Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @coldxman. That's @coldxman.
Just a few weeks ago, Coleman was still studying philosophy at Columbia University in New York City. In addition to writing for City Journal in the past, he's been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Spectator and regularly in Quillette. He also hosts his own popular podcast Conversations With Coleman, which you can find on wherever you get your podcasts. Coleman has written, as I mentioned, a number of pieces for City Journal. His latest is called "The Illusion of Certainty." It's about the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man from Georgia. His killing in February was recorded on video at the time and then released online last month re-igniting, as Coleman puts it, the national debate about racial profiling.
Coleman, thanks very much for joining us.
Coleman Hughes: Thank you for having me.
Brian Anderson: I'd like to talk with you about your interest and what you'll be working on now that you're a member of City Journal and the MI team. But first, let's talk about this article that you've just written. I'm sure many of our listeners are familiar with the story by now and the video that went viral last month. But can you just give, for those who haven't been following the issue that closely, a brief description of what happened as you understand it anyway?
Coleman Hughes: So in the city of Brunswick, Georgia, a 24 or 25-year-old black man named Ahmaud Arbery was running in a neighborhood. It's unclear whether he was out for a jog or what the precursor to the event was, but he entered a construction site and lingered there for about four minutes, didn't take anything and then left and continued running. A neighbor saw him enter the construction site and called 911 because there had been a string of trespassers on that particular site going back something like six months.
And in fact, there had been a serial trespasser who looked like a black man in his twenties with a pretty similar haircut to Arbery's and so this particular person ... whether or not it was Arbery, we don't know, had trespassed once in October, once in November, once in December and once in February, so the absentee homeowner and neighbors were on alert that there was a serial trespasser on this property. So Arbery continued running down the street and three or four doors down on the same side of the street lived Gregory and Travis McMichael. Gregory is a former detective and Travis is his son. They saw Arbery running down the street and believed he was a suspect in the trespassing of that construction site. So they grabbed a pair of guns, got in a truck and followed him with the intent to detain him until the police came.
And so, what happened is there was a four-minute chase involving the McMichaels in a truck and one other guy named William Bryan in a truck. And finally, Travis, the son, gets out of the driver's side, holding a shotgun. It's unclear exactly how it begins from the video, but right around the time you hear the first shot, Arbery must've been grabbing the gun either just before or after and then they're wrestling over the shotgun and you hear two more shots and Arbery goes down.
This happened in late February and for two months, there were no charges brought until Gregory McMichael, who is the father, had a role in releasing the video, apparently hoping to dispel a couple of false rumors that he had a Confederate flag on his truck and that he or his son shot Arbery in the back. So once this video got released, it became a national story and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation got involved and pressed felony murder charges against both father and son and the neighbor who shot the video, William Bryan.
Brian Anderson: Now, this has become a national story, as you note, and certainly, the prevailing narrative, the driving force behind this horrible incident, this killing, is racism, but your piece suggests that there are contextual facts that make the allegation, as you say, of racism less compelling at least as an immediate premise. So could you talk a bit about how you see the contextual facts here and whether the racism charge is too hasty or is legitimate?
Coleman Hughes: So I understand when an American, who is aware of the history of lynching and the optics around two white men from the South getting a pair of guns and chasing a black guy, I totally understand why the first assumption is going to be that they would not have gone after him if he was white. I think that is the natural assumption to make if you're aware of the history of that kind of thing happening, especially in the deep South. However, the only really intellectually honest position we can take about this particular case is to judge it by the facts and to not stereotype the two Southern white guys as racist without conclusive evidence. And the more you look at this case, the more you see how a pair of people could be motivated to chase a guy like this without having to be racist.
And the two contextual facts that matter here first is the string of break-ins at that particular site. As I said, the same black man had been caught on a motion-activated security camera four times prior to the incident on February 23rd and each time he was caught on camera, the owner of the house got a notification along with the video and contacted the police. And after the December trespassing event, a local police officer ... or rather Gregory McMichael offered to help ... because he's a neighbor and because he's an ex-cop, offered to help catch the guy next time he was found trespassing. And what happened was a local police officer, aware of Gregory's offer to help, texted the homeowner saying, "Hey, you have a neighbor, who is an ex-cop, three doors down," or something like this. I'm paraphrasing. "And next time this happens, you can just call him right away and he'll get down there and check it out."
Coleman Hughes: The implication being that he could get there faster than the police could because he was so close and this guy kept trespassing and the police could never catch him. And he was not the only neighbor to offer to help in that way, actually, so that's one piece.
Brian Anderson: Is this a high crime area?
Coleman Hughes: Yeah, so that's the other key piece of contextual information. Many people have said, as a way of downplaying the concern about crime in this neighborhood, that there had been no burglaries reported in the seven weeks prior leading up to Arbery's death in late February and that's true. At the same time, a string of trespassers routinely on this property, you had Travis McMichael's gun was stolen out of his truck in early January. The New York Times reported something like 90 911 calls in the six months leading up to the incident.
And then, the most important fact is that just the general crime rate in this city is in the top five percentile in the country. The crime rate in the whole city is almost as high as the crime rate in the most violent neighborhood in Chicago, Austin. And I think the easiest thing in the world is to minimize a person's concerns about crime in their neighborhood, as someone who doesn't live in the neighborhood, from an outsider's perspective. When in reality, if you were to live in that neighborhood, you might be every bit as concerned as they were. So when you consider those two facts that there is a preexisting arrangement with the police for him to respond and the really sky-high crime rate in the city in general, you can see how, without being racist, a person might pursue Arbery in that context.
Brian Anderson: Well, the incident, the killing, I think does, and you go into this in your piece, raise questions about the way the citizen arrests are handled and it does seem that the local police were perhaps too lax in encouraging, what is basically a form of vigilante behavior on the part of McMichael and Travis, his son. What's your view on that? That does seem to play a powerful role in what happened.
Coleman Hughes: Yeah. There were definitely huge problems that aren't related to racism per se, but that are very much brought to the fore by this case. The first and foremost I think is you see a local police officer texting a civilian with the expectation that he's going to respond to a potential crime. And regardless of the fact that Gregory was an ex-detective and had the training to respond to such a crime, the problem is when you're not wearing a badge, because you're not a police officer, you carry less authority. And when you go to arrest a suspect, often a suspect may not be able to tell the difference between your attempt at a lawful citizens arrest and the early moments of a mugging or a kidnapping. And they might simply resist with all of their force in a way that they wouldn't, if it were actually a police officer with a badge and that just sets up a situation that's going to virtually guarantee that, from time to time, things like this are going to happen.
Then there's another concern, which is why it took two months for charges to be brought against the McMichaels.
Brian Anderson: The third man has now been charged as well. Right? The guy who took the video.
Coleman Hughes: Yeah, the guy who took the video probably played a role in chasing and sort of trapping and blocking off Arbery's potential exit routes has been charged with felony murder and false imprisonment.
Yeah, so what I wanted to say was just that people will, again, want to jump to the conclusion that the reason it took two months is because this was a white guy killing a black guy and the racial element is because black life is devalued. Georgia law enforcement just didn't see fit to charge this person. But I was interested to see a very, very similar case from last year in which a woman in suburban Georgia tried to make a citizen's arrest of an older black man after the black man had done a hit-and-run and shot him once, killed him, she was arrested and charges were brought against her. Certainly, the fact that she was a 20-something white woman didn't prevent charges in that case. And here's just another case where we just have to wait for the full facts to come in because it could well be the case that the fact that he was an ex-cop led the led to a kind of bias that often happens with the police where they just default to protecting their own.
Brian Anderson: Now, you side site of the reactions to Arbery's death in the press and by celebrities. The philosopher, George Yancy wrote a provocative piece for the New York Times. Basketball superstar, LeBron James, tweeted, "We're literally hunted every day/every time we step foot outside the comfort of our homes!" That got an enormous amount of play. It was LeBron after all. What's your take on that response? In your view, it's overstated or it's too hasty?
Coleman Hughes: Yeah. There've been two broad lines of response. One is to compare this to a lynching or to say that, explicitly, it is a lynching. I think there's a huge difference between going after someone with the intent to kill them as punishment for a crime that hasn't gone through the normal channels of the justice system and trying to make a citizen's arrest ineptly in a high crime neighborhood, however deeply unwise that decision was on the part of the McMichaels and it was deeply unwise. That is not the same as the lynching and that difference really matters. To start, why would they call the police if they were intending to lynch this guy? Why would they film it? Why would they release the film? There are just so many things that clearly distinguish this from what happened to someone like Emmett Till.
And then the second broad line of reaction to this has been the LeBron James route, which is to say that there is an epidemic of white-supremacist violence that makes it rational for a black person to fear for his life or at minimum, his safety if he wants to go for a jog in a white neighborhood. I want to draw attention to how differently we treat statements like that, truly alarmist statements, depending on what the issue is. So if, for example, someone were to say, "I fear, as an American, being killed by a jihadist every time I leave my house," that person would just be completely ridiculed and their alarmism would be pointed out in the mainstream media.
But if I'm going to say, "I fear for my life every time I leave my house as a black man," I can get hundreds of thousands of likes on Twitter for a comment like that and I can get praised on mainstream left-wing news outlets. But if you look at the actual likelihood of dying in one of these situations, it's absolutely infinitesimal.
In 2019, a total of nine unarmed black Americans got shot and killed by the cops and 19 white Americans suffered the same fate and no doubt, many of those cases are just instances where the cops should be. It should absolutely not be a cop. There are other instances where a cop really did what any cop would have done in the situation and everything in between, but the kind of exaggeration and moral panic around white supremacy has just deranged people's assessment of the risks. And it's become taboo to pour cold water on these fears. But I think that part of the media's job is to sort of assess risks rationally and tell people when they're freaking out for no reason and the media has really failed when it comes to racism.
Brian Anderson: Now, you've officially joined the Manhattan Institute. You're contributing editor at City Journal. Do you want to take a minute to talk a bit about what you'll be working on, what's forthcoming, maybe what you're hoping to accomplish?
Coleman Hughes: Well, I have a lot of interests. I think a lot about race and the prevailing ideas and passions about racial identity at the moment in America, how they've changed over the past 10, 50, 100 years and so I keep a close tab on news stories that touch the prevailing ideas about race. I'm also a philosophy major. I'm not sure how much there is to write about pure philosophy. That's sort of topical, but I enjoy doing book reviews, sometimes reviews of old books that are nevertheless relevant to what's happening today and it seems like COVID has taken over everything. But I think, as the weeks and months go on, people will have hopefully more bandwidth to think about other topics.
Brian Anderson: Well, you've written a terrific essay that will appear in our summer issue on the economist, Thomas Sowell. It's really a comprehensive look at his career and influence, so that's on the horizon.
I want to congratulate you on finishing at Columbia. You're done now, right?
Coleman Hughes: Yes, I am.
Brian Anderson: Well, congratulations. You've got another career as a musician. I wonder if you could tell our listeners a little bit about what you've been doing there and how this pandemic might've affected your jazz career?
Coleman Hughes: Yeah. Well, there are no jazz gigs happening in person, of course, in the city at this time. So I've been relegated to practicing at home and participating in the occasional remote garage band session where you just send in your track and someone makes it seem as if you were playing simultaneously. I've done two or three of those and they end up sounding okay, but it's better than nothing and there's a lot more time to just hang around and listen and discover new music on my own, which is one of the things I love to do, so it's not all bad.
Brian Anderson: Hopefully, post-pandemic, we'll get back to jazz shows and get an opportunity to hear you play.
Well, thanks very much, Coleman. All these listeners will be very interested in his brand new piece for City Journal, which is called "The Illusion of Certainty." You can find that and earlier pieces he's written on our website and we'll link to it in the description. Coleman Hughes is on Twitter. His handle is @coldxman and you can follow City Journal on Twitter as well. It's @CityJournal, and on Instagram at @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes.
Thanks for listening. And thanks again, Coleman, for joining us and welcome aboard at City Journal.
Coleman Hughes: So glad to be here. Thanks, Brian.
Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images