Truth and consequences after a murder

by Tony Norman

I’ve always been fascinated by white folks who use the “N-word” with what appears to be ferocious joy. There’s something about the combination of hard consonants compacted into two syllables that gets their juices flowing.

Whether there’s an initial stutter before quoting a line from a Richard Pryor bit or reciting a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie with a little too much gusto, the relief at finally having “permission” to say what is normally verboten borders on post-coital, especially if Black folks are present to witness it.

Reading through transcripts of Travis McMichael’s comments on social media, and in texts to friends and colleagues, that have been entered as evidence in his federal trial gives America an unobstructed view of the kind of racism that ultimately leads to murder. It begins with that word.

What’s pathetic yet amazing about McMichael’s vile comments is how familiar they are. We’ve seen comments and sentiments just like them on local and state police chatroom boards and on racist websites where mass murderers believe they’ll get a sympathetic audience for their manifestos.

In his rants, Travis McMichael never manages to say anything original or witty. His insults and observations could’ve been cut and pasted from racist screeds from a century ago, which only confirms the poverty of the racist imagination. Still, being a racist who hid in the shadows like a dangerous cockroach gave him a lot of joy. Because he’s never been a card-carrying Klansman, he thought he had deniability.

I was staying at a friend’s house near Harrisburg in the late 90s and had a chance to witness the near orgasmic reaction uttering the “N-word” elicits from some people. My friend and his family were out of town, but told me where they stashed a spare key to let myself in their house. It was snowing heavily, so it would’ve been a bad idea to jump back on the Turnpike until the following day.

At one point, I decided to stand on the front porch nursing a hot cup of tea to soak in the picturesque view. The neighborhood was one of those white picket fence communities where working class and professional lived side-by-side. My friends loved the neighborhood because it was walkable and very friendly. Their only complaint was its lack of diversity.

As fat snowflakes fell, I couldn’t decide whether to wander a few streets over to the town square for dinner or help myself to whatever lasagna or leftover dishes were still in the fridge.

“Hey, [N-word]. What the [expletive] are you doing on that porch?”

There’s nothing like being startled out of a snow-glow reverie by a racist taunt coming from a car filled with white men laughing at you. Any thought of walking anywhere in that town was instantly banished.

I stepped off the porch toward their car with tea in hand with no strategy in mind except to assert my humanity, but they laughed at me and sped off.

Returning to the house, I sat down on the sofa with my cup of tea and was surprised to find myself burning with rage. As a columnist, I’m used to being called the “N-word” on a regular basis, usually in anonymous phone calls, snail mail or emails.

Name-calling by people who do it from a safe distance stopped having any effect on me a year or two into the gig. But this was the first time I had been called that word in person since a mentally disturbed guy ambushed me with it outside the Cathedral of Learning many years earlier.

I was incensed that those young men had enough contempt for me to attempt dehumanizing me, even though they didn’t know I existed until that moment.

To those young men, I was probably just a rare Black guy they could prank without fear of repercussions. But to me, there was the not-too-remote chance that I had survived a close encounter with a lynch mob in training. Five or six decades ago, they wouldn’t have been satisfied insulting me and driving away.

In 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was chased through a Georgia subdivision by three white men with evil intent in broad daylight. To everyone’s surprise, his three white assailants were convicted of murder by a nearly all-white jury that didn’t even get to hear or see the racist emails and social media posts that Travis and Greg McMichael circulated.

During his criminal trial, Travis McMichael denied he was racist and insisted he was only interested in making a citizen’s arrest for a theft that didn’t happen. He was found guilty and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

In the federal trial now underway, evidence of McMichael’s casual, cruel and consistent use of the “N-word” provides the missing context to the murderous actions that have already landed him in prison for life.

We no longer have to speculate about whether he was obnoxiously and virulently racist on social media and in email chats with his friends. He even fantasized about killing Black people if given the opportunity. It’s all in his texts and emails.

We live in a very strange country. Racial epithets are reserved for opportunistic use on social media or in segregated gatherings where they can be uttered with impunity. These same folks wag their fingers at various rappers and Black comedians, insisting that if white people can’t use the term then it’s off-limits for everyone. Fair is fair, they sulk.

The biggest irony of living in a country where the “N-word” has been a big part of the national lexicon since the 1600s is that folks who would be considered bigots by any reasonable standard don’t want to be put in a box as reductive as “racist” even if it describes them perfectly.

Unless they’re shouting the word from the rooftops like a Klansman, they don’t want to be called racist, even if everything they say and do upholds the principles of white supremacy. If there’s no social advantage to being publicly racist, then nobody wants the hassle, even if they’re going to prison for life for the murder of a Black man.

Tony Norman is a columnist and book review editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.