By Torraine Walker
By now, most of the country has seen the footage of 9-year-old New Yorker Jeremiah Harvey being falsely accused by Teresa Klein of touching her buttocks. If it weren’t for the store security camera footage showing that his bookbag brushed her accidentally and that she leaned her body into his path, his young life could have ended right there if a police officer had responded to her hysteria.
The incident created national outrage partly because of its echoes of the past nightmares; Emmett Till and George Stinney are just two of the most horrific examples of what happens to young Black boys when white women weaponize their race and gender against them. The media attention culminated with Jeremiah being asked by local news if he forgave Klein for endangering his freedom and life and replying that he didn’t. Two days later, Jeremiah and his mother appeared on Good Morning America. This time, his mother did most of the talking and said she accepted Klein’s apology. When asked again if he forgave her under the weight of his mother’s gaze, Jeremiah said yes.
Forgiveness. That’s the required response of Black people victimized by American racism. It’s a requirement that no other group is expected to offer after being wronged. No one expects a rape victim to forgive a rapist or the family of a murder victim to forgive a murderer, unless the victim in both cases is Black and the criminal white, but Black people are denied the right to feel basic human emotions so white America can continue to believe a fantasy that every atrocity it commits has no lasting repercussions.
Whether it’s a Black congregation slaughtered by a white supremacist, or a Black man locked away for years on the word off a white woman, whenever the survivors of American racial abuse are interviewed it’s inevitable that some reporter will ask the victims if they forgive their attacker. And all too often, they do.
We have warped Christianity to thank for this. Whenever European slavers and colonizers went, they brought the bible and the rifle. The one supported the other but of the two, Christianity filtered through the philosophy of white supremacy was the more dangerous weapon. In America, it was often used to indoctrinate enslaved and colonized people into accepting the daily brutality of their lives in exchange for a “promised land” in the afterlife, while their masters enjoyed paradise on earth at their expense. Above all, this perverse interpretation of Christianity taught slaves that to rebel against their masters was the same as rebelling against God, and that forgiving those who violated them was the highest of virtues.
That psychological weapon is still at work in our collective consciousness, but offering forgiveness without demanding accountability is moral cowardice. It undercuts any justice victims might receive and if you publicly forgive your attacker, so will the public, and your example will be used as the “correct” response to blatant racism to discredit the next person who doesn’t agree with it.
Black people have to reject that spiritual miseducation. We have to let go of the idea that forgiveness is automatic and stop allowing ourselves to be coerced into suppressing our anger. Anger at injustice is valid. Demanding financial and legal retribution to punish racists is valid too. Forgiveness is a precious resource that should be used sparingly and only to people who have proven themselves worthy of it. The people we waste it on have already forgiven themselves.
We have a full range of emotions we deserve to explore. It’s not wrong to reserve our empathy and love for those that show us love and our contempt for those that offer theirs to us.
Torraine Walker is a writer, independent journalist, and content creator for digital media. His work has appeared in publications including the Huffington Post, Fusion, Abernathy, and Brain Mill Press. In 2015, his blog SUMCity won WordPress' Freshly Pressed Award for best new blogs.