MINNEAPOLIS — It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a story of hope and forgiveness. We can thank former Fox News figure Megyn Kelly, now an NBC News personality, for this one. The day after Christmas Kelly brought together for her feel-good show a wrongfully imprisoned man and the cop who framed him. The pair, Jameel McGee and Andrew Collins, were there to promote the book they co-wrote, entitled Convicted: A Crooked Cop, an Innocent Man, and an Unlikely Journey of Forgiveness and Friendship.
Kelly, noting that McGee had been sentenced to prison for 10 years, bubbled that “it’s like a miracle because, three years in, you find out the cop who is responsible for you being there was himself arrested!” McGee allowed that it was rather miraculous, crediting God for bringing the two men together. Collins, the cop, for his part told Kelly that he was “called to” reconcile with McGee after meeting him by chance in a park. “It was the Lord,” Kelly concluded.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet – or watched the clip of the show – McGee, the one sentenced to 10 years in prison, is Black. Collins, the report-falsifying cop, is White.
It’s hard to argue with forgiveness. It makes for a good story most days, sells books, helps with the ratings, especially around The Holidays. But the reality is that most media in America are fascinated with the concept of black people forgiving the folks, usually white, who commit atrocities against them. It is something of a year-round staple.
The media could be said to be simply reflecting the will of its audience. That’s because — as Dr. Stacey Patton, professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University, wrote a few days after the June 2015 church massacre in Charleston — the demand for black people to forgive has nothing to do with Christianity or sins or purifying black people, and everything to do with cleaning the tarnish off of white America:
“The almost reflexive demand of forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole … After 9/11, there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. America declared war, sought blood and revenge, and rushed protective measures into place to prevent future attacks.”
Patton noted that the families of black victims Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown and Eric Garner had each been asked by media if they forgave the white killers of their loved one. And yet, she states, no one “expects Jewish people to forgive the Nazis or contemporary anti-Semitic acts. But black people are held to an impossibly higher standard.”
The black forgiveness reflex and the whitewashing of systemic guilt
Dylann Roof walked into a bible study class at a Charleston, South Carolina church in June of 2015 and opened fire, killing nine people. Taken before a magistrate he expressed no remorse for his crime and he certainly did not ask for forgiveness, and yet forgiveness was automatically granted to him by the relatives of those he had killed.
Mississippi writer Kiese Laymon says the automatic forgiving of white people after an atrocity was taught to him and his fellow black Americans in their churches. It is that church lesson — and solution — that leaves out the systemic problems that is really the root of the issue.
Forgiveness aside, the real problem with Kelly’s approach to Collins’ treatment of McGee is that it individualizes a systemic problem.
Collins stated to Megyn Kelly on her show that he had made up his mind that McGee was a drug dealer and was guilty. That determination came from Collins’ mind. After McGee had been arrested, his fingerprints came back from the FBI stating he was not the individual Collins had been targeting; Collins proceeded anyway. McGee would do three years of a 10-year sentence before his conviction was tossed.
On the show, Collins casually states that on the day he decided to target McGee, he was not dressed much differently from the day he was dressed as the two sat together on the set of Kelly’s NBC show. If McGee, dressed in a ball cap with a sweater pulled over a white dress shirt, was not wearing copious amounts of jewelry and diamonds and flashing cash, what then does a drug dealer look like?
The system that trains police officers that black men are guilty until proven innocent is part of the problem that went unaddressed on Kelly’s program. So is the automatic credibility generally given to police officers in their written reports and their sworn testimony in court.
Unless and until police officers are seen as human beings who are fallible and prone to the same biases that regular people have, there will continue to be abuses of power. That should have been the angle to investigate on Megyn Kelly’s NBC News show, not some feel-good that leaves fully intact the system that brought McGee and Collins together in the first place.
Forgiveness, while a noble act, is a deeply personal one. According to the reports of various individuals, from various walks of life, who have endured tragedy and hardship and forgiven the people who caused that misfortune, the act of forgiveness has been a very healthy, fortifying and freeing act. But that act is no substitute for public policy or systemic change. In fact, in a society that refuses to face its systemic flaws head on, the obsession with victims forgiving their tormentors becomes part and parcel of the same abuse that was originally inflicted.
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