It was the hug felt around the world.
This past Wednesday, black people watched with collective shock as 18-year-old Brandt Jean walked across a Dallas courtroom to share an embrace with his older brother’s killer.
Just moments earlier, that same audience was celebrating what’s been called a landmark verdict in a case that has left us shocked, infuriated and horrified since the incident that triggered it took place last fall.
In September of 2018, 26-year-old Botham Jean was sitting on the sofa in his apartment eating vanilla ice cream, when he was shot and killed by off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. The story sparked international outrage about the crime and keen interest in what the trial’s outcome would be. Not only was Botham a beloved an active member of his local religious community, this case in particular seemed to highlight the most basic and terrifying iteration of a dynamic that we have seen play out over and over again -- a defenceless black man killed by a trigger-happy officer. Guyger later claimed that she was exhausted following a shift, and had thought she was defending herself from an intruder in her own apartment which was one floor below Botham’s.
Since the trial began though, it’s been revealed that Guyger sent racist texts to co-workers, including offensive statements about Martin Luther King Jr. and some of her black colleagues. In one of those messages, Guyger claims not to be racist, but points out that black officers on the force have a different way of working “and it shows.”
So when Brandt and presiding judge Tammy Kemp both got up to hug Guyger after the sentencing, there was a sense of anger and betrayal at the scene that was unfolding. Guyger, a white former police officer, was being publicly placated seemingly for suffering the consequences of a crime she committed, a crime for which people like her rarely ever suffer consequences.
Kemp even gave Guyger a Bible, and whispered a few words of encouragement to help keep her spirits up as she begins her prison journey. Opening it to John 3:16, she reportedly told Guyger: “This is where you start.”
The moment has since been called “beautiful” and many have praised Brandt for finding the strength and grace to take that position, especially so soon after Botham’s death. Now let’s make something clear – Brandt has full license to extend forgiveness to the woman who shot and killed his brother. But, what cannot be ignored is the way that whiteness often operates in a moment like this, effectively dismissing the victim, and centering the white person’s experience of the incident. These moments are continually usurped as avenues for white redemption, with black victims being asked to “make nice” with the perpetrators of their trauma. It’s like the boy on the playground who you had to apologize to, because all of a sudden he’s upset that he got in trouble for hitting you. And what’s worse? Black people are never afforded the same kind of empathy within the US criminal justice system. Ever.
It’s something that we have long bemoaned, especially as more and more of these incidents unfold in public view. Writer Jemelle Hill tackled the topic in a 2018 op-ed in The Atlantic titled Sometimes I wish the Obamas Wouldn’t Go High.
“I sometimes wonder if the people who often cite that quote have a full understanding of the emotional toll it takes on people of color to have to constantly absolve the racism directed at them,” Hill writes, speaking about Michelle Obama’s now-iconic mantra “when they go low we go high.” Coined during the 2016 election, the phrase has become the rallying cry of black people everywhere, acting as a handy stress ball or meditation spell whenever we are confronted with (usually racial) unpleasantness.
Sadly, this low-high binary almost always ends up in service to whiteness. Not only does it absolve the guilt and responsibility of the offending party, it also works to make black people complicit in the accountability process. Why do I have to continually stifle my outrage, anger, pain or trauma just to make you feel okay about getting your just reward?
And speaking of justice and consequences, Judge Kemp’s conduct also bears particular mentioning. It says a lot about this specific racial dynamic not just on the ground, but throughout our higher institutions. Kemp has since defended her actions though, telling the Associated Press: “I came down to extend my condolences to the Jean family and to encourage Ms Guyger, because she has a lot of life to live.” Despite the fact that a complaint has been filed against her with Texas authorities because of the gesture, Kemp stands by her decision to “
The discomfort around the courtroom gestures was also later echoed by Botham’s mother. Shortly after the hearing, Allison Jean told CBS News’ Omar Villafranca that she was surprised by the moment. “What Brandt did was to cleanse his heart towards Amber … I do not want it to be misconstrued as a complete forgiveness of everybody.” As she points out, there’s plenty of people to blame for what happened to her son, but that responsibility is not just Guyger’s.
For me, framing these types of incidents as “teachable moments” not only puts the onus on black victims to concede in some way to their abusers, it also suggests that black people be somehow remorseful, that someone is actually facing consequences for the harm they have suffered.
Black people deserve justice and we shouldn’t have to apologize for getting it.
Tayo Bero is a freelance journalist