What the Amber Guyger Case Reveals About White America

They don’t want forgiveness. They want to be excused.

Sammie L. Berry invites questions after making a statement at the press conference following the funeral service for Botham Shem Jean at Greenville Avenue Church of Christ. Photo: Stewart F. House/Getty Images

“But the trouble is that what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses… There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.”

— C.S. Lewis

SSome have called it “the hug heard round the world.” Just moments after former police officer Amber Guyger was handed a 10-year prison sentence for the murder of Botham Jean, an unarmed Black man who was shot while eating ice cream at home, she was embraced by her victim’s brother.

“If you truly are sorry — I know I can speak for myself — I forgive you.” Brandt Jean said to his brother’s killer.

The bailiff comforted Guyger after the verdict, bringing her tissues and fixing her hair. The judge then stepped down, Bible in hand, and spoke with Guyger for a few minutes before embracing her as well. There were tears all over the courtroom, and praise over the moment across the internet, especially from white America.

White news anchors applauded the “mercy, faith and bravery” of Brandt Jean’s offer of forgiveness. Other’s called his reaction inspirational and a model for compassion.

I respect Brandt Jean’s decision to process the trauma of his brother’s death however he chooses. But I’m more skeptical of white America’s praise. As a Black activist, I write constantly about racism. One recurring theme of my work covers the evolution of racist systems: for example, the connection between incarceration to plantation slavery, or modern-day policing to slave patrols. This country has never made a concerted effort to audit and remedy the damages of anti-Blackness. Therefore, we have no grounds to conclude that racism is an artifact of the past. We also have no justification to feign shock during instances of racial violence.

I cannot tell you how many times a white, Christian male has appeared in my social media feeds, throwing scripture and vomiting slaveholder theology to shut me up. At every turn, they seem to have an excuse for anti-Black violence: They’ll say prisons are disproportionately filled with Black people because Black people commit more crimes. They’ll say racist outcomes in economics and employment are due to Black culture. They’ll say the victims of police violence earned their deaths. They’ll say slavery was common in other times and some slavemasters were nice. There is always an excuse.

In short, white America dismisses anti-Black violence. Racism, they contend, is not so pervasive, not so vicious, not so bad as Black people are making it out to be.

They speak as though the solution for racism is forgiveness. Any anger we express at living in an anti-Black world is mislabeled as “bitterness.” Any accountability we demand is mislabeled as “vengeful.” Any assertion that reparation is necessary is deemed unreasonable. It’s all “divisive” to them. Their argument is basically that we just need to “get over it.”

And since white America is dismissive about anti-Black violence, white America is rarely angered by it. White America was largely not upset alongside us as we mourned the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Terrance Crutcher, Philando Castile, Michelle Shirley, Korryn Gaines, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, J.R. Thomas, the list goes on.

White America doesn’t fill our Twitter feeds, or the streets, with outrage when officers turn Black bodies into hashtags. White America didn’t even do this for Botham Jean. And the suspicious murder of Joshua Brown, Jean’s neighbor and a key witness in Guyer’s trial, seems to have gone unnoticed.

In fact, white America is often indignant when we are enraged. They’re not upset, why should we be?

Instead, they calmly tell us to “wait for all the facts.” They tell us about the victim’s criminal history or their toxicology report. They quote statistics about “Black-on-Black” crime. They cry, “What about Chicago?”

They call Dylann Roof’s massacre of the Charleston Nine a religious hate crime. But they notably ignore that his murder-rampage was motivated by racism, even when he wrote a manifesto stating explicitly that he targeted his victims because they were Black. White America decided to be upset about the religious portion of his screed, but not about the anti-Black part. One Facebook commenter even went as far as to say “We can never know why people do these things.”

Well, if White America is unable (or unwilling) to see what is outrageous when it comes to race in this society, how can they be trusted to define what is good when it comes to racial justice?

It rings hollow when the same people who dodge our laments praise our capacity for grace.

That picture of the traumatized and the traumatizer enfolded in each others’ arms is the Black America they hope for. And they reveled in it.

If you don’t respect our anger, refuse to hold space for our pain, chastise us for protest, and admonish us to overlook racial violence and forgive, then your celebration of our mercy is nothing more than positive reinforcement.

White America is just saying “bad Negro” when we’re angry, and “good Negro” when we suppress it. This couldn’t be about what is good. It’s about what white America wants: to be absolved of anti-Black violence without being held responsible. White America wants forgiveness without repentance and mercy without justice.

What they experienced in watching Brandt Jean embrace the woman who killed his brother was not amazement, but joy. That picture of the traumatized and the traumatizer enfolded in each others’ arms is the Black America they hope for. And they reveled in it.

But there is only one Brandt Jean and, as he made clear, he only spoke for himself.

If White America is able to marvel at our capacity for grace, then they concede the enormity of the crimes committed against Black people every single day. Will white America only acknowledge the magnitude of these wrongs if we guarantee them an assurance of pardon? If we tell them, “It’s okay”?

Perhaps America doesn’t excuse anti-Black violence because of ignorance. Perhaps they do know how enormous a problem it is, if they can be amazed when Black people forgive it. Perhaps white America isn’t outraged by anti-Black violence because they consider it normal, and they just want us to embrace it.

Writer, speaker, & musician contending for a world without racism.

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