Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

There are only a few days left in our critical Mid-Year Campaign and we truly might not make it without your help.
Please join us. If you rely on independent media, support Common Dreams today. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Allison Jean, mother of Botham Shem Jean, stands with family and church members of Greenville Avenue Church of Christ after the funeral service on September 13, 2018 in Richardson, Texas. (Photo by Stewart F. House/Getty Images)

Allison Jean, mother of Botham Shem Jean, stands with family and church members of Greenville Avenue Church of Christ after the funeral service on September 13, 2018 in Richardson, Texas. (Photo by Stewart F. House/Getty Images)

Forgiveness Isn’t the Problem. One-way Forgiveness Is. Who Forgives Black People?

By simply existing, black people remind white people of those sins of their forebears, sins many are desperate to minimize or forget. Because down that path lies white guilt.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

 by the Miami Herald

Here’s the thing about forgiveness.

It’s not just something you extend to someone else. It’s also a gift you give yourself, permission to lay down the heavy burden of grudges and rage. And if you’re a Christian, it’s an obligation — albeit a hard one — of faith.

One can believe all that, yet still be deeply conflicted by last week’s act of forgiveness in a Dallas courtroom: Brandt Jean, who is black, embraced and absolved Amber Guyger, the white former police officer who had just been sentenced to 10 years for killing his brother, Botham. Guyger had entered Botham’s apartment mistakenly believing it was hers.

While some people considered these acts of grace, others, many of them African American, were furious. Actress Yvette Nicole Brown retweeted a meme that said: “If somebody ever kills me, don’t you dare hug them. … Throw a chair, in my honor.” To which Brown added: “… and then dig me up and throw ME!” Others were angered that Guyger got "only" 10 years.

The view from this pew is that none of us has the right to tell Brandt Jean how to grieve his brother or process the hell he’s living through. As to Guyger’s sentence: It actually seems fair for a crime that was ultimately a tragic mistake, albeit one exacerbated by poor judgment.

What makes it seem unfair is that we’ve too often seen black defendants receive far harsher sentences for far lesser crimes. Like Marissa Alexander who, in 2012, fired a warning shot as her reputedly abusive husband advanced on her. She got 20 years for shooting a ceiling.

But if these issues are relatively clear cut, the larger one—forgiveness—is anything but. Especially since it sometimes seems that black people—not coincidentally the most religiously faithful group in America, according to a 2014 Pew survey—are forgiving to a fault.

A white supremacist massacres nine people in their church. Family members forgive him. A white cop shoots a fleeing black man in the back. The victim’s mother forgives him. In 1963, white terrorists killed Sarah Collins Rudolph’s sister Addie Mae Collins and three other girls in a bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Rudolph forgave them. And so it goes.

Forgiveness, you understand, is not the problem. But one-way forgiveness is. Because who forgives black people? Forget forgiveness for wrongdoing. How about forgiveness for simply existing and trying to live unmolested lives? This is what Botham Jean was doing—eating ice cream in his own home—when he was killed by a white woman who blundered upon that prosaic scene and perceived a threat.

In dying that way, Jean indicted cherished American myths about equality and unalienable rights. America—much of white America, at least—hates when you do that. One is reminded of what Hilde Walter, a Jewish journalist, was quoted as saying in 1968: “It seems the Germans will never forgive us Auschwitz.” Similarly, it sometimes seems much of white America will never forgive us slavery. Or Jim Crow.

By simply existing, black people remind white people of those sins of their forebears, sins many are desperate to minimize or forget. Because down that path lies white guilt. That’s why, when a black man enjoying the comfort of his own home is judged an intruder and executed by a white cop, one is less shocked to see her receive forgiveness than to see her receive punishment.

For the record, Joshua Brown, a young black man who testified against Guyger, was ambushed days later and shot dead. The obvious motive is being speculated. It seems, somehow, a fitting coda to Brandt Jean’s act of generosity, the good deed refusing to go unpunished. It’s a reminder that our racial history is shaped by co-equal forces:

We live by uncanny grace. And sins unatoned.


Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. His latest book is The Last Thing You Surrender: A Novel of World War II. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday in the Miami Herald. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was published in 2009.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

'Now We're Talking!' Says AOC as Biden Backs Filibuster Carveout for Abortion Rights

"Time for people to see a real, forceful push for it," said the New York Democrat. "Use the bully pulpit. We need more."

Jake Johnson ·


Supreme Court Says Biden Can End 'Shameful' Remain in Mexico Asylum Policy

"Now is the turn for Congress to get rid of Title 42, and provide a solution to the weakened asylum system in place, to provide a humane and fair alternative to vulnerable children, families, and individuals fleeing unsafe conditions and persecution."

Brett Wilkins ·


Democrats Lose Senate Majority as 82-Year-Old Leahy Heads for Hip Surgery

"It could be over for the Senate Dems now," said one policy expert in response. "This could mean they effectively lost their majority."

Jon Queally ·


Beijing Slams NATO for 'Maliciously... Smearing' China as a Security Threat

"Who's challenging global security and undermining world peace?" Chinese officials asked. "Are there any wars or conflicts over the years where NATO is not involved?"

Kenny Stancil ·


US Supreme Court Drops Carbon Bomb on the Planet

One Democratic senator warned the right-wing majority's ruling "could unleash a new era of reckless deregulation that will gut protections for all Americans and the environment."

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo