The shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man jogging in a mostly white neighborhood outside of Brunswick, has become a racial flashpoint around which many are calling for justice.

Three white men have been arrested and charged with murder in Arbery's death. But those arrests only came months after the February 23 shooting, in part because three prosecutors had declined to pursue the case. 

It's a terrible, tragic mess, but one that isn't surprising.

A black man walking — or jogging — down a road often generates a call to law enforcement as a "suspicious person" report. We see that all the time in police reports we get from our local departments.

And it's not just here. Black men all across the country know that walking or running in certain areas often leads to such racially-profiled calls.

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The idea of white men chasing a black man for violence has deep roots in American society, dating back to the era of slavery.

There wasn't much law enforcement in rural areas back then, but there were groups of vigilante white men known as "patty-rollers" who patrolled the backroads looking for slaves who weren't where they were supposed to be. During that time, slaves couldn't be off their owner's property without a written permit.

But it wasn't uncommon for slaves to have family or friends at another plantation and they would sometimes sneak out to visit one another. If caught by the patty-rollers without a permit, slaves were often beaten as punishment.

The dynamics between a slave without a permit and the patty-rollers was determined by who was fastest. If a slave could outrun the patty-rollers and get back to his owner's property, he was safe.

During the 1930s, the WPA did a project which involved interviewing former slaves about their experience on the plantations in the South. In those interviews, one former Georgia slave told a story about a young slave boy who outran the patty-rollers and after making it behind his master's fence, taunted his pursuers.

That cat-and-mouse pursuit between slave and patty-rollers led to a famous African-American folk song, "Run N-----, Run." (The song, dating to 1851, was used in the 2013 film, "12 Years A Slave.")

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After the Civil War and the end of slavery, the pursuit of black men by white vigilante groups continued with the creation of the KKK and affiliated groups. Former slaves were harassed, especially around elections when they were first given the right to vote. In later years, Southern apologists idealized the KKK as having "saved" the South after the Civil War from the power of black votes.

After the first KKK fell out of favor in the 1870s, informal white mobs took their place. Black men who "didn't mind their place" in the South's racial apartheid system would be beaten, sometimes lynched. 

That dynamic continued for decades. There was an incident here in Jackson County during WWI where a black solider went AWOL. A posse was created by his former farm employer and after the soldier was discovered, the white men shot and killed him on the road where they found him.

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This theme of white men pursuing a suspicious black man seems to be at the core of the Arbery incident, too.

The men said they thought Arbery had committed burglary and they wanted to stop him with a "citizen's arrest." 

But so far, there hasn't been any evidence that Arbery committed any crime in that neighborhood. He did apparently go into a home that was under construction nearby, but that's not an uncommon thing for people to do in the South. 

So it's unclear exactly why those three white men pursued Arbery, other than the fact he was a black man who was running and who looked "out of place" in their white neighborhood. 

Time will tell if there will be any justice in this case. 

Meanwhile, the incident could revive a move to pass a hate crimes law in the state, a move that had not received much support until this incident.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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