Actress Taraji P. Henson stirred controversy last week when the Empire star blasted the Glendale, California police department during an interview with Uptown magazine, claiming that her 20-year-old son had been racially profiled in Glendale and at USC.
“My child has been racially profiled,” she explained in the interview. “He was in Glendale, California and did exactly everything the cops told him to do, including letting them illegally search his car. It was bogus because they didn’t give him the ticket for what he was pulled over for. Then he’s at University of Southern California, the school that I was going to transfer him to, when police stopped him for having his hands in his pockets. So guess where he’s going? Howard University. I’m not paying $50K so I can’t sleep at night wondering is this the night my son is getting racially profiled on campus.”
But a 40-minute video recording of the incident hit the Web, quickly going viral and revealing the specifics of the police stop. The footage, allegedly from October 18, shows the officer driving in traffic in Glendale when the Oscar nominee’s son drives through a lighted crosswalk as a person is walking across. It doesn’t appear that the officer could’ve seen Marcell Johnson’s race prior to stopping the vehicle. After the police initiate the stop and question Johnson, the young man admits to having marijuana in his possession and possibly some Ritalin. More officers arrive to search the vehicle. Johnson is eventually cited for the marijuana—but not for the stop—and allowed to go on his way.
Shortly after the footage surfaced, Henson apologized via Instagram.
“I would like to publicly apologize to the officer and the Glendale Police Department,” she wrote. “A mother's job is not easy and neither is a police officer's. Sometimes as humans we overreact without gathering all the facts. As a mother in this case, I overreacted and for that I apologize. Thank you to that officer for being kind to my son.”
Henson’s claims made headlines at a time when the country is on edge regarding police interactions with black people. In recent weeks, black men have been killed by officers in Atlanta and Wisconsin, while Martese Johnson, 20, a student at the University of Virginia, was beaten outside a Charlottesville pub by state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents after he reached for his Illinois state I.D. A breathalyzer test revealed that he was not intoxicated. These incidents are only the latest in what has been an endless stream of high-profile shootings, beatings, and deaths involving officers of the law and black citizens.
Henson may have considered her response an “overreaction” and her apology is understandable. She has issued no such retraction to the University of Southern California (the Chief of USC Public Safety has said that he “was deeply disturbed to read news reports about a prospective student who felt profiled on or near campus because of his race”), and those who are quick to dismiss the justifiable anger, fear, and frustration that African Americans feel towards police officers will gladly use this to bolster their, “See? They always overreact and cry racism,” arguments. But one mother’s apology doesn’t wash away the blood of those killed by trigger-happy, hyperaggressive police officers.
There was another high-profile apology this week. Joey Cassleberry, infielder for Bloomsburg University, made derogatory comments about 13-year-old Little League phenom Mo’ne Davis. He tweeted, “Disney is making a movie about Mo’ne Davis. What a joke. That slut got rocked by Nebraska.” The backlash was swift, culminating in Cassleberry being suspended indefinitely from the Bloomsburg University baseball team. In the midst of the furor, Cassleberry apologized via his Twitter page, then deleted the page altogether. His remarks were reflective of both a culture that oversexualizes young black girls and the consistently dismissive attitudes many have towards girls and women who excel in sports that we oftentimes associate with male athletes. His dismissal was the right call. But young Miss Davis extended an olive branch and called for forgiveness for this adult man who, despite not knowing her, decided to dismiss and disrespect her publicly with such vitriol.
Davis told ESPN, “Everyone makes mistakes,” Davis said. “Everyone deserves a second chance. I know he didn't mean it in that type of way. I know people get tired of seeing me on TV. But sometimes you got to think about what you're doing before you do it. It hurt on my part, but he hurt even more. If it was me, I would want to take that back. I know how hard he's worked. Why not give him a second chance?”
Many applauded Davis’ stance, and the youngster—just like the aforementioned Henson—has the right to feel however she wants and has the right to resolve this issue however she wants. But for those of us watching from the sidelines, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become too comfortable with “classy” responses to hateful attitudes. Miss Davis accepting Cassleberry’s apology is an example of how black victims of white aggression are expected to be “the bigger person” and “take the high road.” Everyone feels better because it’s easier to write a piece praising a little black girl’s desire to forgive than it is to dissect exactly why an adult white man would behave the way this man did.
Apologies are an important part of letting go and moving forward. And that is necessary. But apologies can also become tools to silence those who are being victimized; and conversely, they can enable and endorse those who are oppressors. Some people apologize with no intention of doing the work required to make real change within themselves, and society. They apologize to absolve themselves of guilt; an act of false repentance to help them sleep at night or quiet a backlash. Levi Pettit, the now-infamous leader of the disgustingly racist SAE chant that fraternity members were caught on video singing during a bus trip earlier this month, apologized this week for his role in that shameful display of bigotry. With a small cadre of stone-faced black folks literally standing behind him, the now-expelled former University of Oklahoma student said, “There are no excuses for my behavior. I never thought of myself as a racist. I never considered it a possibility. But the bottom line is that the words said in the chant were mean, hateful, and racist.”
“To hear the words that I am a racist or a bigot may seem logical after seeing my face and hearing me participate in a mindlessly sickening chant; however, what you and others saw in that video is not who I really am. It's not who I was raised to be and not who I think of myself to be.”
Most racists don’t like to think of themselves as racists, just like most addicts don’t like to think of themselves as addicts. But allowing people who engage in hateful behavior to disassociate from that behavior does us harm as a culture. Forgiveness is something that is earned through time and with deeds, not over a few days and a poorly executed apology. Our focus should not be on absolving the offenders, but on rooting out the pathology in a culture that creates them. We often say that admitting when you are wrong makes you a big person. But some of these apologies aren’t admittance of anything but a desire to get back to normal. And that makes them pretty small.
It’s great to forgive, but hatefulness shouldn’t be accepted. And neither should some apologies.