Hate crime convictions will never be enough to address murders like Ahmaud Arbery’s

Arbery’s murderers were convicted on federal hate crime charges. Why does it feel so hollow?

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images

In mid-2020, yet another video of a Black person’s death disseminated across the internet. This time, it was 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. On Feb. 23, 2020, two white men — former county police investigator Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael — stalked, confronted, and killed Arbery while he jogged through a suburban Georgia neighborhood. While Arbery’s death prompted immediate protests, it took several months for the video of his murder to leak and spark a new cycle of outrage.

The renewed attention came amidst a surge of nationwide uprisings that flowed out of Minneapolis following George Floyd’s murder. So, the criminal justice system raced to act. Last year, Gregory; Travis, who shot Arbery; and William Bryan, a family friend who filmed the attack, were found guilty of murder. Then last month, a judge sentenced the trio to life, with only Bryan having the possibility of parole.

But the charges didn’t stop there. On Tuesday — nearly two years to the day that Arbery was killed — the men were also convicted on federal hate crime charges for violating Arbery’s civil rights (along with a charge of attempted kidnapping). But while some laud the convictions as delivering “justice,” the victory is hollow if you dig a little deeper.

Throughout this process, prosecutors have sought to make examples out of the McMichaels and Bryan. Everyone knows that charges won’t bring Arbery back — but that’s not the crux of the issue. Creating examples out of these men doesn’t prevent another tragedy. Many have compared Arbery’s death to public lynchings, where white people like the McMichaels and Bryan turned themselves into state executioners; Arbery’s killers had professed to be trying to make a “citizen’s arrest” because they believed (without any real evidence) that Arbery was responsible for a series of break-ins in the neighborhood where he was running.

Lynch mobs sought to not only kill, but violate the bodies of Black people for any perceived infractions — to make warnings out of their deaths. They did so for several decades. If the acts of the McMichaels and Bryan are following a historical trend in America, then it’s only the extent of their prosecution that stands out.

First introduced in 1968, hate crime laws are presented as a way for communities of color to get justice for targeted unjust treatment. But hate crimes are vastly underreported — partially because it’s asking people to turn to the same institutions that often collaborate in their oppression. There’s another chief issue: They’re notoriously difficult to prosecute.

There are a few reasons for this. Most importantly, hate crimes put a legal constraint on understanding and identifying what constitutes “hate.” In other words, just because most of us would call something a hate crime on the streets doesn’t mean it gets treated as such by the courts. Look at the 2015 Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shooting of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, her sister Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Yusor’s new husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat. Or the execution-style murders of Mohamedtaha Omar, Adam Mekki, and 17-year-old Muhannad Tairab, all Sudanese, the next year in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

In both shootings, hate crime charges weren’t pursued, even though it seemed clear the perpetrators felt violent toward the communities to which their victims belonged. This isn’t out of the norm. One of the main reasons hate crime charges aren’t consistently filed is because not every state has hate crime laws — and even if it does, the law still may not apply to the case at hand. For example, The Marshall Project reported that North Carolina didn’t have a state-level hate crime statue that would apply to first-degree murder, so the Chapel Hill shooter couldn’t receive a hate crime charge.

Okay, so what? Reforms at the state-level can take care of that problem. Except the federal government has fairly comprehensive hate crime legislation — and things still don’t look much better there. While the three men involved with Arbery’s killing received federal hate crime charges, a 2021 report from the Department of Justice itself showed the agency fails to prosecute over 80% of suspected hate crime charges.

Proponents of hate crime laws argue that we can’t let hate go without punishment. And in the case of Arbery’s murders, hate crime charges worked, right? The men were convicted, which legally affirmed what everybody already knew. But even in the case of a supposedly “successful” hate crime case, there’s still a big flaw: Hate crime charges individualize issues to a dangerous extent.

During her closing remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyon said, “The three defendants did not see 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery as a fellow human being.” I’m not here to argue with those words, because I believe they are true. But even while Lyon points to the killers’ dehumanization of a Black man, there is no analysis as to the why. Who taught these men to see Arbery as less than human? Remember both McMichaels stated that they followed Arbery because they believed he was connected to local break-ins. Who brought them up to see themselves as arbitrators of justice with the power to stalk someone?

In considering these questions, there is no ignoring that the elder McMichael, Gregory, was a former member of law enforcement in the same county where he and his son hunted Arbery down. The same systems that sought to bring “justice” for Arbery’s death are the ones that bred at least one of his murderers. And yet, the prosecution can’t say this or it would condemn itself.

Thus, hate crimes become examples of either one-time or exceptional violence. While hate crime legislation is supposed to address acts that extend beyond individuals and threaten entire communities, they ironically individualize the violence we see. If a series of hate crimes are ever connected to each other, the link is tenuous, and the blame is still shifted from the U.S. as a nation built on genocide to “extremists.” Similar narratives arise in the ongoing conversations around white supremacist “extremism” (what is the non-extreme version of white supremacy?) and the rush to fund domestic anti-terrorism efforts to confront white supremacy.

But perhaps most frustratingly, the very name “hate crime” distracts us from examining root causes. It assigns emotion where there may not be any. To put it simply, I don’t know if the McMichaels hated Arbery when they saw him. It also doesn’t matter. You don’t need to hate an individual person — or a community — to oppress them. Most importantly, focusing on human emotion — hate — as the problem allows us to once again bypass the problematic systems that humans have created.