Another Dimension to Forgiveness: Caste

I have written several posts about forgiveness where the victim, who happened to be black, has publicly forgiven the offender, who happened to be white. I thought it was especially impressive because black people in America have more to forgive.

After reading Isabel Wilkerson’s powerful book, Caste (Random House: 2020), I see another dimension to these stories, and I see how I, as a white person, was at best naïve about the deeper dynamic at play in these incidents.

These cases included the 2019 sentencing of the (white) Dallas police officer who killed a (black) man eating dinner in his apartment because she thought he had invaded her own apartment; not only did the victim’s brother forgive the officer, even the judge forgave her. (“Forgiving a Killer”) Another was the Grand Rapids case of the four white boys who brutally killed Willie Jones, a black man unknown to them, where his brother, and later his nephew, publicly forgave them. “The Reverend Charlie Jones,”; Forgiving a Murderer.  There was also the 2016 hearing for Dylann Roof, the (white) killer of nine (black) Charleston church members, where the daughter of one of his murder victims publicly forgave him, spurring other family members to forgive.

The “forgivers” in these stories acknowledged the role that their Christian faith played in their decision to forgive. That’s what attracted me to these stories.

But Wilkerson points out that, in the United States, forgiving white people is not an option for black people; it’s a survival tool. When viewed against the backdrop of the American white supremacy caste system, these acts are not surprising but expected. She quotes Roxane Gay, who wrote an article about the Dylan Roof incident: “White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.” (Caste, Ch. 22, pp. 287-88) Gay notes that black people “have to forgive time and time again while racism, or white silence in the face of racism, continues to thrive.” There is, as author Brandon Tensley observes, an expectation from white citizens that black outrage will be tamed.  Indeed, racism was involved, to some extent, in each of the cases noted above, where white people murdered black people.

I reviewed all my posts about crime victims forgiving perpetrators, over a dozen; in some, I don’t know the parties’ race, but I don’t have any stories where a white person forgave a black person. Such events do occur – see the story about Toni Nunemaker, who befriended the mother of the (black) boy who killed Nunemaker’s 9-year-old (white) grandson Connor — , but my own blog proves Wilkerson’s point, what she calls “black forgiveness of dominant-caste sin.”

I greatly admire anyone who is able to forgive a crime, especially when the offender (like Roof) fails to express any remorse; and I assume these forgivers did so primarily out of obedience to Jesus’s command to forgive (most famously in what is known as the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Matthew 6:12). But I also see now that it’s more complex when a black person (again) forgives a white person.