The first feeling is relief.
On Wednesday in Brunswick, Ga., three white men — Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William Bryan — were found guilty of felony murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery.
And one doesn’t feel joy, nor even vindication. Nope. Only relief. Justice — which for some of us has always proven elusive, fickle and unreliable — chose to make an appearance this time. You can’t understand how that feels if you don’t understand how often it has chosen otherwise.
Consider what happened in August of 1930, in Marion, Ind., when a white mob broke into the jailhouse and lynched two African-American men. The killers posed for a picture with their grisly handiwork, but no one was ever charged — much less convicted — of the crime. Despite photographic evidence to the contrary, it was attributed to “persons unknown.”
Or consider this one: In August of 1955, in Money, Miss., two white men murdered a 14-year-old African-American boy. In court, they freely admitted kidnapping him and were even placed by a witness at a barn where he was tortured. Yet the jury deliberated just over an hour before returning an acquittal. One juror said it wouldn’t have taken so long, but they stopped to “drink pop.”
These stories are not aberrations, but an unholy norm, repeated a thousand times a thousand times in our history.
So yes, relief. The three white men who last year stalked and killed Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American jogger, for the “crime” of running through their neighborhood and not stopping when they demanded he do so, were convicted on charges that could put them away for life, perhaps even without parole. And you feel that thing you feel when tension is released and you sigh and you sag a little, realizing all at once that tension was the only thing holding you up.
The conviction came despite appeals by defense counsel to the racial fears of an almost completely white jury. That includes Laura Hogue’s instantly infamous characterization of Arbery wearing “khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.” In other words, he was a rhymes-with-trigger who deserved what he got. To their credit, jurors rejected this naked appeal to their basest selves.
One hopes those white people who think themselves inherently entitled to stop Black people on the street and demand they justify their presence will now check themselves and correct themselves. One hopes they will question this high-handed assumption of theirs that random white people have some divine right to police random Black people and Black people some moral obligation to quiescently accept it.
This verdict allows for that hope, if not quite for the expectation. One is relieved to have even that much.
But that word is problematic, isn’t it? The sense of relief is reflective of bitter experience and hard history, of seeing Trayvon betrayed, Tamir betrayed, Philando betrayed, Emmett betrayed, of learning thereby not to expect too much in the way of fairness, or be treated as if your life and pain matter. And it is reflective of knowing how easily it could have all gone the other way, jurors agreeing that because the man’s toenails were unkempt, he deserved to die.
That knowing — that constant knowing — is exhausting. And it is the distance between this country and the ideals it engraves upon marble edifices. Because in America, justice should not have to be a relief.
In America, justice should be an expectation.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@@miamiherald.com.