fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

A white man murdered a Black teen in downtown Ashland. We need to talk about it

On November 23, 19-year-old Aidan Ellison, a Black man, was shot and killed by a 47-year-old white man in a parking lot of a hotel for the offense of playing music loudly in the wee hours of the morning.

There is much we don’t know about how this unfolded. Here’s what we do know:

  • A 19-year-old Black man is seven times as likely to be murdered in this country than his white counterpart.
  • Only 1.4 percent of the Ashland population are Black.
  • This is the first murder in Ashland in at least a year.

Given these facts, I’m surprised how quickly people from the community questioned if race had anything to do with this tragedy. Some note the shooter was unhinged, having lost his home in the Almeda fire, and snapped when he couldn’t sleep due to noise outside his hotel room, where he had been living.

But the outcome of this event is chillingly replicable across the country. A white man killed a Black kid. This was a modern-day lynching in downtown Ashland.

I understand the desire to pick apart the details, look for ways this murder was unique. It is uncomfortable to confront racism and identity-shaking to think our little progressive Eden isn’t an exception to racist forces. I’d rather this were an anomaly.

I grew up in Ashland. I spent my childhood thinking we were post-racist; Black history month was taught as, “racism was a thing, then MLK came along, and now it isn’t.” I thought it was ridiculous that people would judge others on the basis of race, adopting the colorblind philosophy that white people use to deny the Black experiences and tacitly perpetuate racism.

Aidan, as a Black man in a white space, didn’t have the luxury of being colorblind.

“Aidan often said there were two rules for living in Ashland: 1. Have a big smile. 2. Be white,” his family shared in a statement. “He was hyper-aware of this community’s denial of his experience in a Black, male body, and this country’s denial of how it targets people like him.”

Yet some are reserving judgment about the role race played. The Ashland Police Department is “investigating” if the murder was “driven by race” — a standard that is difficult to substantiate in even the most explicitly racially charged murders. On social media, people are asking versions of, “Did the shooter even know the ethnicity of the person playing music when he left his hotel room?”

Maybe he didn’t. And maybe the police didn’t know the ethnicity of George Floyd when they were called in to examine a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis. And maybe George Zimmerman didn’t know Trayvon Martin was Black when he saw someone in a hoody walking around the neighborhood. Maybe Tamir Rice still would have been shot if he were white.

Yet the pattern keeps repeating. White men have a legacy of destroying Black bodies in America. If we don’t examine this legacy when it comes to our town, we are compounding the tragedy and denying the existence of the injustice.

Like many, I’ve spent this year reckoning with the systemic racism that shapes every aspect of American life. I’ve been working to learn and unlearn what I know about racism and to become more comfortable with the discomfort of talking about race. I want to be better, and I want my community to be better with me.

There is a term, “woke,” used to describe people who understand racial justice. I think we have the tense wrong. In the past tense, “woke” sounds like, “I’ve heard and seen enough.” Yet the journey of understanding white privilege, and how it shapes our lives, is ongoing. The more I learn the more I realize how little I know. This isn’t about becoming woke; it is about a constant, ongoing awakening.

This moment demands self-reflection. If you have a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard, if you marched in the streets for racial justice, if you blacked out your Instagram profile this year, but you’ve questioned the racist undercurrents of Aidan Ellison, you are missing the point entirely. The real test is now, when the violence is in our back yard and threatens our very identity.

Let’s actively work to open our eyes and keep learning together. Let’s examine how systemic racism has manifested here and where we are failing. Let’s figure out what a 93-percent white town can do to meaningfully address injustices and become more diverse.

Ashland can still be exceptional. Not because we’re free of racism, but because of how we address it.

Sarah Golden is an Ashland native, graduating from Ashland High School in 2003. Her family has been involved in local politics her entire life. She currently is a clean energy analyst and writer at GreenBiz in Oakland, California.