In a show of grace, Brandt Jean hugged his brother’s killer in court on Wednesday and forgave her. “If you are truly sorry,” Jean told Amber Guyger, “I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.” Guyger had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing Botham Jean in his home. She claimed to have mistaken his apartment for hers, which was the unit below, and the 26-year-old black man eating ice cream on his couch for an intruder. The hug was a surprise in a trial full of them. Guyger was a Dallas police officer at the time of the shooting, and the impunity with which police kill seemed bound to shield her from legal consequences. It did not, but the approval that greeted her conviction soured after the jury announced her sentence, which some deemed too lenient. Backlash too greeted Brandt Jean’s display: Some faulted the deceased’s brother for being too magnanimous. Others criticized a culture that valorizes black forgiveness but demands few changes to the norms and practices that make it necessary. As if on cue, praise for Jean poured in from Senator Ted Cruz and the Dallas Police Department. “Amidst heartbreaking tragedy, a beautiful, powerful example of Christian love & forgiveness,” Cruz tweeted. “Botham Jean’s brother’s request to hug Amber Guyger … [represents] a spirit of forgiveness, faith, and trust,” wrote the police.
To forgive the person who killed one’s brother is a deeply personal act. Brandt Jean, who is a Christian, seems to have done so for himself and in accordance with his faith, not to excuse Guyger’s crime or exonerate the society that permitted it. But the specter that hovered over his decision was still power and what it demands from its subjects. Too much of black life is spent reassuring others that we mean them no harm to ignore this reality. The resulting frustration is well earned; self-preservation should not rest on such assurances. Whether these concerns informed Jean’s decision is known only to him, but of note is that his mother, Allison Jean, called on Guyger to change and the police to retrain and will receive few of the plaudits that her son did. That’s because too often, forgiveness is palatable because it lacks institutional power — the might to forgo it and force a reckoning for those who’ve done wrong. As Americans, we’ve rarely had the luxury of seeing what grace looks like when it is practiced by powerful people, instead of scorned and only celebrated when it facilitates their absolution.
Black grace is so potent and so vaunted a force in part because its alternative inspires so much fear. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), America’s highest-grossing film prior to 1939, famously reimagined Reconstruction as a time when vengeful ex-slaves “[asserted] an abusive dominion over Southern whites,” as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody writes. Of course, the opposite was true — black leaders were known to govern toward the common good and did so by expanding the franchise and establishing public schools across the South. But Griffith’s revisionism gripped the public imagination, with screenings at the White House and a subsequent resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Rather than fade with time, its articulation of white anxiety found new outlets. Barack Obama’s presidency was one, generating a flood of baseless claims about the ills it supposedly heralded. “[The] president has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race — on the side that favors the black person,” said Representative Steve King. Under Obama’s governance, claimed Rush Limbaugh, “the white kids now get beat up, with the black kids cheering, ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’” This preoccupation with black vengeance is expressed as confusion as well as conspiratorial panic: After Senator Kamala Harris confronted Joe Biden during the first Democratic primary debate about his opposition to busing, Chris Matthews asked her incredulously, “How did you come out of that and not have hatred toward white people generally?”
It remains unfathomable for some, to the point that they’ll fabricate black vengeance out of whole cloth, that all black people aren’t consumed by an open loathing for white people, considering the violence that has marked our American experience. That black disaffection is so infrequently expressed through violence seems less attributable to our uniquely forgiving nature than to the fact that even our milder expressions of frustration — peaceful protests, seeking greater accountability from public officials — are met with rage by forces that outnumber and could easily overpower and kill us. This is not to reduce all displays of black grace to fears of backlash. But our power deficit explains why so few American institutions feel compelled to echo that grace or reciprocate it. Much was made of the black families from Charleston, South Carolina, who forgave an unrepentant Dylann Roof for killing their loved ones in 2015. Less thought was given to the irony of the U.S. Department of Justice meeting that grace by swiftly scheduling Roof’s execution.
The disconnect between public celebrations of black forgiveness and America’s zeal for imprisoning more of its citizens per capita than any other country in the world is equally telling. The question arises of how much grace truly matters to some of its proponents when it’s not being used to reassure them that committing violence against black people will have no long-term consequences. Evidence abounds that grace is politically toxic. Candidates for judgeships, sheriffs’ offices, and prosecutors’ offices regularly lose elections for being seen as too lenient. So did Michael Dukakis. Trump’s entire presidency is predicated on selectively withholding grace from those he and his supporters deem unworthy. Meanwhile, grace was so stridently demanded of President Obama that he couldn’t criticize a white police officer without subsequently inviting him to a beer summit.
It’s worth considering what our culture of forgiveness would look like if black people weren’t forced to weigh the threat of white violence. How would removing that suspended guillotine impact the impulse to extend grace? Brandt Jean was acting according to his faith, no doubt, but it’s hard to separate his gesture from the potential costs of attrition. More important, it seems likely that grace practiced by a people with the power to enforce their treatment as equals and who insist on doing so would lose much of its charm. We may never know. As of now, the only forces with the power to both be gracious and ensure justice regularly refuse to do it. The result is a nation that revels in black forgiveness but remains profoundly unaccountable to black people.