Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a long-time journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His next book, “A Black Man in Trumpland: Why We Didn’t Riot – But Should Have,” will be released by Other Press in 2020. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Had a young black man with a history of saying racist things about white people shot and killed a white police officer in her own home, he likely would not have gotten hugs from a white judge, a hair rub from a white police officer in the courtroom and been granted a kind of absolution by the white cop’s brother. Instead of being sentenced to 10 years, he would have likely been sent to prison for the rest of his life, if not to death row.
His actions would probably have been used as yet more evidence in the long line of excuses made to ignore or downplay rampant racial disparities that have been with us since the American criminal justice system was created, used to drive home the racist idea that it’s OK for police to brutalize or shoot black people because we are supposedly uniquely violent.
Those were the thoughts rumbling through my mind as I watched 18-year-old Brandt Jean, the younger brother of Botham Jean, a man gunned down in his own apartment by white Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, forgive and wish well, then embrace Guyger after she was sentenced to prison.
I get why others only felt inspiration, and were moved by such a selfless act. The faith that moved Brandt Jean to say those words is the faith that convinces me to hold onto the idea of redemption for all, even those who do dastardly things.
It’s why I have argued against the death penalty, even for white supremacist Dylann Roof. It’s why I remained in a mostly-white Evangelical church for nearly two decades despite my unease with fellow Christians who began embracing ugly racial views, because we must walk our faith, even during difficult, conflicted times. That’s how I know why Brandt Jean’s words moved so many people.
His words aren’t the problem, it’s that black people, no matter the circumstances, aren’t generally forgiven for killing white people. We are put to death, figuratively and too often literally. That’s why it’s been grating to so many black people to watch the reaction of so many white people to Brandt Jean’s powerful words, because we wonder why they hardly ever do the same for us.
And I suspect that among those claiming to be inspired by such acts of black-people grace are incapable, or unwilling, for example, to forgive former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the “sin” of silently, peacefully kneeling during the national anthem to highlight racial injustice.
Why does the inspiration they proclaim after yet another black person publicly forgives yet another white killer hardly ever result in tangible evidence that they won’t simply pocket the gesture without even re-examining why racial prejudice and disparities persist or their role in that persistence?
It wasn’t as though I was angry with Brandt Jean as I had those thoughts during Amber Guyger’s sentencing. I wasn’t, and I’m not now. He did nothing wrong. He has every right to grieve and live out his Christian faith – which requires extending grace even to our enemies even when it hurts, especially when it hurts – however he chooses.
No one should deny him that. No one should criticize him for that. No one should underestimate the incredible strength it must have taken to walk out his faith under such circumstances. He’s to be commended, particularly in an era in which a number of white evangelical Christians have dumped their faith to stand with a President who is the personification of all things the Christian Bible warned Christians against. A young man modeling how to stand on principle is to be celebrated.
Still, it rubbed me the wrong way—and I am so not alone–that it was largely white America doing so much of the celebrating of his gesture. Does it feel as though they’ve been granted another get-of-jail-free card to avoid any racial guilt or discomfort and to push off the responsibility of healing America’s racial wounds onto black people?
Brandt Jean and his family had every right to be angry. But had he expressed that black anger, many in white America would not be celebrating him today. Heck, had Brandt Jean decided to silently, peacefully kneel in the middle of the courtroom instead of hugging Guyger, I have no doubt that much of white America would have written him off as just another ungrateful, unpatriotic black man– the way they have Kaepernick.
Never mind that Guyger’s 10-year prison sentence is shorter than what a black person would likely have gotten for what she did. (That’s not an argument for harsher sentencing of white defendants, but one for more sensible ones for everyone.) Never mind that black people on average receive longer sentences for committing the same crimes white people do.
Never mind that the kind of stand-your-ground defense Guyger’s team deployed has created a deeper racial divide, with white people who kill black men hardly ever being held to account, and black people who kill white people hardly ever being found not guilty, as the Marshall Project revealed during an examination of 400,000 homicides committed by civilians. Never mind that black people have been forgiving white people their trespass since before the founding of the United States.
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Black people fought alongside white people during the American Revolution – and were still enslaved afterwards. Black people fought alongside white people during the Civil War – and then had to endure a century of lynchings. Black soldiers fought alongside white people during WWII, helping to save the world from Adolph Hitler, only to be treated atrociously when they returned to American soil.
Some of the loved ones of those massacred by white supremacist Dylann Roof in a historically-black church in Charleston forgave Roof. White America said it was inspired by such a selfless act – then promptly went out and put Donald Trump and his bigotry in the White House despite the cries from black people. What will white America do now with the inspiration they claim they feel in the wake of Brandt Jean?