After giving his victim impact statement at Amber Guyger’s sentencing, Botham Jean’s younger brother, Brandt, did one of the most spectacular things imaginable.
— Scott Greenfield (@ScottGreenfield) October 2, 2019
At least, that’s how it appeared to me. It never occurred to me that anyone would, could, see it otherwise. I was wrong.
Then, as now, many correctly pointed out the complications with glorifying that act of forgiveness: That it shouldn’t invalidate the value and necessity of black rage. That it shouldn’t be taken as representative of what an entire race of people feels or ought to feel. That their act of forgiveness did not then and does not now absolve the country from dealing with white supremacy or systemic racism.
“What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small,” Roxane Gay wrote in the New York Times. “I, for one, am done forgiving.”
In an effort to not attack Brandt, per se, while attacking his act and those who found it “inspirational,” a distinction was drawn between the personal act, one that a human being named Brandt Jean needed to do for his own sake, and the political act, one that a black man should do when his brother was murdered by a white person.
I do not believe Brandt Jean was delusional to forgive Guyger….
What is delusional is to think reconciliation or forgiveness is the point, as Guyger’s attorney implied. Brandt Jean’s hug was not a political statement but a personal one, and it’s a distinction we need to make if we want to live in a world where his older brother is still alive. Because getting caught up in cheap absolution—an “inspiring” hug between a victim and a killer, meant to teach us how we ought to feel about cops who accidentally (or intentionally) kill the people they’re charged with protecting—is both dangerous and immoral. It distracts us from reckoning with the idea that a white police officer’s murder conviction came, in large part, because her victim was “perfect”: Jean was, quite literally, a choir boy. That the circumstances of his murder were so heinous—sudden and senseless, in his own home, eating a bowl of ice cream—that acquitting her would be a crime.
This was, without a doubt, a most unusual case, a most unusual murder. And so too was the grace shown by Brandt Jean. He wasn’t the political embodiment of black rage, but a human being who had his brother stolen from him forever. Whether others could show the grace he demonstrated is hard to say, but he did and it’s outrageous to take that from him to serve some ulterior political purpose.
Surely Roxane Gay’s feelings of rage, her refusal to forgive like the people of the Emanuel AME Church did to Dylan Roof, are as far from relevant as possible. Not that Gay has ever been reluctant to impose her views on others, but she’s never shown any inclination to let anything, facts, reality, gravity or metacognition, get in the way of believing her feelings matter more than anyone else’s. Weirdly, she gets to say so in the New York Times.
It never occurred to me that this was a racial issue, that it reflected some aspect of a war where it was wrong for a person to show the grace that so few are capable of showing. Why steal that from him? Why denigrate his act with your politics? Why draw these lines by racial identity when the lines by graciousness were already established.
That, no doubt, can be explained by my not being marginalized, so I can take for granted my inability to see race where it’s obvious to others. Some would explain this as privilege. I explain it as seeing Brandt Jean as a person rather than a black symbol. Don’t black people ever get to just be people? Isn’t that the point of this exercise in facing racism, to end it?
Nothing about Brandt’s act of forgiveness was an acquiescence in his brother’s murder, that murder wasn’t horrific, that the murder of black men by cops wasn’t outrageously bad and inexcusable. Nothing about Brandt’s act of grace was absolution to the white race for killing the black race. No white person, no cop, would see it and say, “Well great, now that this guy hugged his brother’s killer, let’s go kill us some black people because they don’t mind.”
Granted, Jean could not have been the more perfect black murder victim, which makes him the perfect black man for white people to feel terrible about. When Laquan McDonald got shot down in the street like a dog, he wasn’t the “good black man” that makes it easier for white people to empathize. Still, there was rage, even if McDonald wasn’t eating ice cream on the couch when he was murdered, as well there should have been. He was entitled to live just as much as Botham Jean. And you. And me.
But don’t seize Brandt Jean’s grace for your own political purposes. This moment was his, and only his, and not yours to twist to your cause. Brandt showed grace. Criticizing Brandt does not, not that you care. You are absolutely entitled to your black rage, and sadly, there is plenty of opportunity for it. But this wasn’t it. Or do I just see it that way because I’m a white guy?