Let’s get this out of the way first: if a white woman kills me in an act of racial violence, I don’t want you to hug her on national television so that the rest of the world can use the visual imagery as yet another narrative about the power and grace of Black forgiveness.
With that said, I am not in the practice of disparaging people directly impacted by violence and injustice for how they react. Botham Jean‘s brother choosing forgiveness for Amber Guyger and hugging her in the courtroom would not be my course of action. Nor would it be something I’d necessarily want my family to do on my behalf. But judging him for his method of healing isn’t accomplishing anything.
What we can do is make sure that his act of forgiveness isn’t used as yet another method of putting the burden on Black people to always accept racial violence and anti-Blackness with a grace that gives white folks permission to continue killing us without reckoning with their choices.
Instead of focusing on Jean’s family, we should look at how the people with actual power reacted to Guyger and the crime she committed. The two big sources of outrage after Wednesday came from the fact that Guyger was only sentenced to 10 years in prison for murdering the 26-year-old St. Lucia native. The outrage over that perceived light sentencing was only compounded by the circus that took place afterward: Judge Tammy Kemp, a Black woman, also hugged Guyger and handed her a Bible to guide her on her journey to incarceration.
I know this is all outrageous and infuriating. I share that same fury. In a vacuum, the Amber Guyger murder trial is almost exactly how the criminal justice system should work. First of all, from top to bottom, the case was handled by people who look like Botham Jean. The district attorney is Black. The judge is Black. The mayor is Black. The jury was mostly-Black. A police officer was finally convicted of crimes against a Black person. Guyger was also given a sentence that allows her to find retribution and reenter society at an age in which she can still contribute. And even after the sentence came down, she was treated with humanity and dignity of someone given a chance to reform.
That’s the ideal outcome any time someone commits a crime. Sadly, though, the Amber Guyger case did not happen in a vacuum. The problem with the way Guyger’s sentence was laid out isn’t necessarily about her as much as it is about the ways everyone else – namely Black and brown folks – are treated within that same criminal justice system. The problem isn’t the dignity and humanity Guyger was allowed to preserve. The problem lies in the humanity and dignity that is stripped away from damn near every person of color who goes through the court system.
Just look at all the people who are (again, rightfully) upset. They are all comparing Guyger’s sentence to Black folks who have had to spend decades in jail for marijuana possession or shoplifting. The examples are plentiful and all over social media. But this is how a corrupt, broken system works to break us all. Our heartbreak over inequality suddenly creates a populace that champions harsh sentences, advocating for the same oppressive system that harms black people most of all. The same thing happened with Felicity Huffman who was sentenced to 14 days in jail for bribing colleges to accept her children. We become bloodthirsty, wanting her to spend years in jail for nonviolent offenses because our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers had to do the same.
I don’t want Huffman or Guyger to serve longer terms. I want to countless Black people in jail serving unjustly long sentences to be free. And I’m angry that the examples of the courts getting sentencing right or using compassion for criminals often come when its a white person on the wrong side of the judge’s stand. I don’t want Amber Guyger to be treated like a Black person. I want Black people to be treated like Amber Guyger.
Furthermore, true justice isn’t about Amber Guyger’s sentencing. It’s about creating a world in which Botham Jean is alive. One in which police like Guyger no longer feel like killing Black folks is something they can get away with. That is the true measure of justice. And the true test of how free we can be.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism and Social Justice at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.