Racists Do Not Deserve Forgiveness

Racists do not deserve forgiveness. This is a position that I came to embrace over time. I wish I had come to this place sooner, and I wish it would come to more marginalized people sooner. I think it’s an important path to getting free.

I first began thinking seriously about forgiveness during a philosophy course I developed about the role of luck in our lives and the ways we are morally judged for our actions. I introduced students to an essay by the philosopher Pamela Hieronymi titled, “Articulating An Uncompromising Forgiveness.” She argues that forgiveness is something we deliver to people who have wronged us only when we are certain that in our relationships we will stand as moral equals when the dust settles; otherwise, we disrespect ourselves in the process of offering forgiveness. Over the years, I have come to fully embrace this view.

This became especially clear for me in the wake of terrorist Dylann Roof’s killing spree at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Fueled by racial hatred, Roof killed nine innocent people. As acts of forgiveness from the victims’ loved ones quickly followed, I was stunned. Here was a man who brutally murdered people at a place of worship, and yet many chose to forgive the person who never acknowledged their humanity or worth.

All Roof deserved was their rage, which is an unpopular opinion for various reasons. One reason is that calls for forgiveness are often in play for much less overtly heinous acts, such as responding to those who choose to live in a segregated neighborhood, or assume a Black woman is not smart enough to be a good doctor. We live in a society in which mea culpa, when offered, is done with the understanding that forgiveness follows. But this tendency is complicated when we factor in race.

On the one hand, America has a centuries-long history with a large segment of its population benefitting from the abuse and exploitation of another portion of the population. There is no America as we know it without the enslavement of Black people. There is no leader of the free world without there first being a leader of the enslaver world. America would not be the world’s largest economy without it first being an enslaved-dependent economy fueled by free labor and violence. The stubbornly timeless myth of the self-made white man presumes the truth of the exploited Black person.

On the other hand, Black people strain when grappling with these facts honestly, and in public. Because the justified response to these truths is anger and resentment, and while Brett Kavanaugh can seethe all he wants in front of Congress, no Black person can display that level of rage without being written off as “merely” angry, irrational, and possibly dangerous. And it does not help that there is a long tradition in the Black community — owing to many factors from religion to political pragmatism — which counsels, as Michelle Obama poorly advised in the face of Donald Trump’s candidacy, “When they go low, we go high.”

Holding all that in view, what does it mean for Black Americans to look upon our white counterparts with forgiveness? Black Americans have been severely wronged with the injuries transmitted across generations, which are renewed daily by institutional racism, passive abuse from casual racists, and active hatred from the Donald Trumps and Phil Spencers of our country. Black people own less property than whites, have a per-dollar fraction of their wealth, and have reduced access to quality schooling — to name just a few injustices.

Yet, Ralph Northam seeks forgiveness for standing for a photo in blackface while next to a person wearing KKK garb. Liam Neeson has fallen on his sword for admitting he once went out looking to attack a Black person after someone close to him experienced personal trauma. And maybe the most heartbreaking thing of all is that many Black and Brown Americans will do exactly that — they will forgive with no sign whatsoever that, when the dust settles, they will stand in a position of equal regard with those that have looked down on them.

The question of forgiveness is not merely a tricky philosophical question about morality. It’s a pressing question for democratic societies marked by social stratification and is especially urgent for ones, like ours today, flirting with a return to national white supremacy.

Brown folks have always had to deal with the question of forgiveness, perhaps more than any other group in the United States. While many are quick to grant forgiveness, as though it is a given even in the face of injustice, I believe it’s time for us to reserve forgiveness for those who deserve it, those who see us as equals and are willing to take the steps necessary to change their behavior. Otherwise, we merely disrespect ourselves and relinquish our equality in favor of false acceptance.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is the associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).