Protecting Supremacy: Dog Whistles in the Ahmaud Arbery Murder Trial

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By Patrick C. Graham, Ph.D.

Kevin Gough, the defense attorney for William “Roddie” Bryan, one of the three murderers of Ahmaud Arbery, is blowing “dog whistles,” drawing upon the political and cultural memories of racists.  Yesterday, Gough doubled down on previous comments related to Black preachers not attending the trial.  He requested a mistrial due to the presence of Rev. Jesse Jackson with the Arbery family in the courtroom.  On the one hand, Gough attempts to appeal to any potential cultural understanding or misunderstanding of the jury related to Black leadership. The jury consists of eleven white men and women and one Black man.  On the other hand, I believe Gough is also appealing to much of the white public’s so-called “equity fatigue” to garner white empathy and ensure a path to an appeal if things do not go his client’s way.  Ultimately, Gough has decided to use the issue of race and deflect it as a problem of Black people at the same time.

On Friday, November 12, Gough declared, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” after Rev. Al Sharpton and others sat with the Arbery family earlier in the week.  He suggested that the Black preachers may intimidate the jury.  According to Gough, the preachers most people did not notice were intimidating by their mere presence in the courtroom.  After he was reprimanded by the judge and received bad press for his comments, Gough walked back his remarks with a halfhearted apology.  However, he went further yesterday afternoon requesting a mistrial due to the presence of Rev. Jackson.  Outside of Gough’s attempt to play on the issue of race to declare a mistrial, I believe he is also attempting to gain favor with the fears of the larger white public and set himself up for future opportunities.

As America struggles with issues of racial equity, there is a growing backlash against Black enfranchisement into our educational, political, economic, and judicial systems.  We witness this backlash with false debates over critical race theory, exclusionary voting laws, racial redlining in homeownership, policing and justice legislation, and overall attitudes related to Black equality.  Gough is familiar with anti-equity trends and perceptions of Black males as criminals.  He is also familiar with the narrative that Black civil rights activists and preachers such as Sharpton and Jackson are inappropriately characterized as race-baiters.  Gough is playing off of these white fears to gain current and future leverage in a case where a man would be alive if he were not Black.   

The humanity of Ahmaud Arbery is lost when individuals like Gough fail to balance their duty as defense attorney and the racism that still exist in our cultural memories and history.   He has decided to play on our worst and unfounded racial narratives to win immoral victories with divisive consequences.  If Arbery is our modern-day Emmett Till, then Gough is our modern-day Sidney Carlton.  For some reason, I think he is okay with that. 

About the Author

Patrick Graham, Ph.D., is a social and public sector leader and historian with over 20 years of executive-level experience in policy development and programs. He is also a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) practitioner.  Dr. Graham currently serves as the CEO of the Concord Family Enrichment Association and serves on several regional and national boards.

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