It is hard for many African Americans to understand why a Black man would embrace the White cop who had been convicted of killing his brother.
When they look at the photo of Brandt Jean hugging former Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger, they wonder how he could have been so forgiving. Police officers and Black men are supposed to be archenemies. Didn’t Jean realize that?
Speaking during the sentencing phase of the trial, barely able to keep his composure, Jean laid out feelings he had not previously expressed even to his family.
‘Best for you’
“I don’t even want you to go to jail,” he said. “I want the best for you. … The best would be giving your life to Christ.”
Then he asked Judge Tammy Kemp if he could step down and give Guyger a hug. “Please,” he repeated. He did, and Guyger rushed into his arms.
In a country where law enforcement has been so unforgiving to African Americans, particularly males, how could an 18-year-old Black male dole out compassion so generously to a cop whose own text messages revealed her racist thoughts?
Perhaps it was for the same reason the African American judge embraced Guyger at the end of the trial, too. And for the same reason a Black female bailiff was seen stroking Guyger’s blonde hair after she was found guilty of murder.
And for the same reason some family members forgave White supremacist Dylann Roof for shooting up a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people.
Not responsible for racism
Maybe it is the mistaken and self-deprecating belief some Black people have that they are responsible for White people’s racism. This subconscious idea suggests that Black people can change the behavior of White people by doing better themselves.
If Blacks can somehow show that they are worthy of being appreciated and respected, then Whites will accept them. And if Blacks can demonstrate that they are willing to forgive racists for the hurt they’ve caused, then racists will willingly become less racist.
Of course, many Black people will say they forgive because it is what Christianity requires of them. They will say it is because God would not want them to carry the anger around for the rest of their lives. And in exchange for their forgiveness, they often will offer a Bible.
No one can argue with how a person chooses to cope with tragedy. Nor is it up to anyone to decide how survivors should come to terms with their grief. And it is certainly not our place to question their relationship with God.
But beyond the spiritual aspect of forgiving with such great magnitude is a cultural phenomenon that has shaped who we are as African Americans from the moment we entered this country enslaved. It is what sustained us though slavery, through decades of lynchings and cross burnings and through police killings, economic inequities and social injustices.
It is the belief that, in spite of the racial atrocities inflicted on Blacks, even those who seem to hate us deserve a chance for redemption. And it is our job to help them find it. Many Whites have been more than happy to sit back and allow Black people to do all the redemptive work.
When they consider Brandt Jean’s hug, they see courage. They admire him for being able to let bygones be bygones. They hold him up as a model for how Blacks should respond to adversity, pain and anger. They are at ease with their feelings, because Jean gave them permission to remain in their comfort zone.
Not as patient
These attitudes, however, are fading as a younger generation takes over the mantle. Younger Blacks are not as patient as their parents and grandparents were, and they are less willing to take the responsibility of teaching White people what it means to be Black. As far as they are concerned, anybody who wants to know the facts about Blacks in America must take it upon themselves to find out.
And many younger Whites, as a result, are less dependent on African Americans to teach them about the Black experience. They proactively seek information because they know that understanding America’s racial history is crucial to its future.
When young people gathered outside the courthouse in Guyger’s case to await the verdict, the crowd was diverse. Blacks and Whites stood side by side, holding signs that said, “Black Lives Matter.” They felt collectively that Guyger’s 10-year prison sentence for shooting a man in his own home because she entered the wrong apartment was a slap in the face. And they said so in angry chants outside the courthouse.
They were aware that the light sentence is reflective of the inequities of the judicial system, which historically has applied harsher sentences to African Americans than to Whites who committed similar crimes.
Take, for example, Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who at age 31 was sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot at her husband in self-defense. He was not injured. Alexander was released after spending six years in confinement.
They understood that Guyger’s decision to shoot Botham Jean to death because she believed that he was an intruder is a symptom of much bigger problems with race that plague police departments across the country. They are problems that have led to far too many deaths of Black men who should not have been killed.
Who is she?
We don’t know who Guyger really is in her heart. The best we can do is surmise from what she has shown us. In text messages released during the sentencing, Guyger made several racist remarks, and in one, she appeared to acknowledge that she is racist.
Someone named Ethridge playfully offered to give Guyger a German shepherd. “Although she may be racist,” Ethridge wrote. Seconds later, Guyger responds: “It’s okay, I’m the same.”
The idea that Blacks can “fix” White people is flawed. What it fails to recognize is that nobody can fix anybody. Each of us has the power to change who we are, if we want to change.
The problem with racists, though, is that they often don’t realize that they need to be fixed. Or if they do, they don’t want to be fixed.
Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.