Is America a racist country? We shouldn’t have to ask

Is America a racist country?

As some of you will recall, Sen. Tim Scott answered that question in a speech last year with an emphatic no. He was promptly echoed by Vice President Kamala Harris. Neither explained their reasoning, but one assumes it was based, at least in part, on the fact that the country has no laws explicitly requiring racial mistreatment.

Fair enough. America hasn’t had such laws for a whole 50 years, give or take.

But that line of argument asks that we accept a ridiculously narrow definition of what it means to be “a racist country.” It ignores the fact there is not a single American field of endeavor — journalism, pro football, real estate, banking, politics, health, you name it — that is free of racial discrimination. Might have been entertaining to see how the senator and the veep responded had anyone thought to point that out.

Not to pick on them. Their reality avoidance is hardly unique. Indeed, where race is concerned, eliding the truth is an American tradition.

Which is what makes the second trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers — the federal hate crimes trial — feel so critical. Prosecutors are asking a jury to face that truth, head-on. In the state trial that ended in November, three white men — Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William Bryan — were found guilty of murder after chasing Arbery, an African-American jogger, through their south Georgia neighborhood. They claimed to believe he was responsible for a series of break-ins.

He wasn’t. He was just a black guy out for a run. His killers got life sentences.

But if the state trial proved what happened, the federal trial that began Monday seeks to establish why. Most of us already “know” why, of course: three racists did a racist thing. But this prosecution, if successful, will establish that to a legal certainty. In a nation so steeped in racial denial, it would be gratifying to see these men convicted of hate crimes. But first, a jury that includes eight white members will have to agree that Arbery was shot because he was black. In other words, it will require them to face what America too often is.

Despite the fact that prosecutors are armed with multiple examples of the defendants using coarse and hateful language, success is not considered a foregone conclusion. Small wonder. If conceding America’s unflattering truths is problematic for two African-American politicians, imagine how much harder it will be for eight white laypersons. But if they are able to do that, they will go a long way toward helping this country see itself as it actually is. And that’s vital.

Consider that just last week came news of a Jan. 24 incident in Brookhaven, Miss., with eerie resonance to the Arbery lynching. It seems two white men allegedly tried to stop a Black FedEx driver because they deemed him suspicious. Twenty-four-year-old D’Monterrio Gibson told CNN that when he wouldn’t stop, they fired at least five shots into his van.

It is only by grace that Gibson was not injured, did not become yet another meme of a Black man killed by a white man’s sense of entitlement.

And still some people ask: is America a racist country? It says something that this is even a question.

Of course, it’s a racist country. Obviously, and by every meaningful measure. That’s precisely why this trial matters. A guilty verdict would help America confront that sickness.

Which is the first step toward healing it.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.