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Audio of Botham Jean 911 Call Takes Us to a Tough Question. Was His Killing Racial?

Demonstrators gather at a vigil for Botham Jean at Dallas police headquarters.EXPAND
Demonstrators gather at a vigil for Botham Jean at Dallas police headquarters.
Brian Maschino
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At least in terms of the public process, if not the legal one, the release of the audio recording of the 911 call in the Botham Jean killing finally takes us down to the fine point of what has been the public question from the beginning: If a white cop shoots and kills an innocent black man, can that killing ever not be racial?

From the moment former Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger, who is white, shot and killed an unarmed Jean, who was black, in his own apartment last Sept. 6, the shooting has been debated in public as a racial issue. But in the 911 recording, we hear Guyger saying over and over again that she thought she was in her own apartment when she shot Jean, whom she said later she had believed to be an intruder.

It simply is not possible to listen to that horrible recording and come away thinking she was faking that part of it or that she was there for some other dark purpose she was seeking to disguise. It’s awful. We listen in as grisly voyeurs while the life of this happy, much admired 26-year-old son of devoted parents slips away, apparently as he is in the arms of his killer. No screenwriter could invent a more heart-rending scene.

Some of what Guyger says to the 911 operator in the audio, as some critics have pointed out already, feels inappropriate. She says several times that she is worried about losing her job. We might wonder why she’s even thinking about something so selfish while a life ebbs away before her eyes and by her own hand.

But is there a handbook somewhere with rules for what one is supposed to say or allowed to say in such an utterly unimaginable moment? Most of what she says is a wild free association of panic, horror and — to my own ear anyway — terrible regret. What would any of us say? How would we handle it?

Even if it was a mistake, even if she did believe she was entering her own apartment and Botham Jean was an intruder, did it make a difference anyway that he was black? Would she have been more likely to show restraint if she had found a white intruder in her apartment? Why did she have to shoot anybody anyway? Couldn’t she simply have walked away?

Whenever any of us enters our own home to be suddenly confronted by what we think is a burglar, I think we’re all going to assume the burglar is armed and may try to kill us. I don’t know that I’m going to be more inclined to have a friendly chat with the burglar if he’s white. White doesn’t quite go that far for me, but maybe for other white people it does.

Cops just don’t walk away much. Every ounce of training and experience teaches them to stand and deliver. That doesn’t mean they have to shoot anybody. But they can’t really just walk away — one reason I never wanted to be one.

In terms of the public debate, there is a side of all of this that we have to take into account, and that is white denial. You may think this is a ridiculous leap, but I think a good window on what we’re talking about is the national reparations debate now picking up some steam.

Viewed one way, very negatively, the reparations debate is only about a bunch of black people trying to get paid for nothing. Viewed for what it is really, the reparations question isn’t about black people. It’s about white people finally coming to grips with the horrors of slavery, the atrocities of Jim Crow, the ongoing legacy of institutional racism and, more even than all that, the ways in which white privilege and white supremacy separate white people from reality, especially about themselves.

This is why I don’t think it’s ridiculous to leap from Jean to reparations: I can’t ask you to be reasonable or realistic about an issue if I am totally incapable of being realistic about it myself. We can’t get a mile down that road. Not even a yard. In order to ask for reason from you, I have to have some standing, some respect that I have earned already from you by showing you that I am a reasonable person myself.

We do not live in those times. These are times when the president of the United States gets entire stadiums full of white people up on their feet cheering for him by telling them that white racist Nazis are the moral equivalents of black human rights protesters. Far from expressing any inkling of reasonable self-knowledge, white people right now are famous on TV for ranting and denial. And we can forget that the word humility is even in the language.

So let’s leap back to Botham Jean and remind ourselves of the original question. Could a white cop shoot an innocent black man in his own apartment and the incident be devoid of racial bias? If we could fence out the rest of the world and imagine instead a place where everybody looked at this soberly, with humility and respect, then I think the 911 audio would argue powerfully that Jean's death was not racial. It was a terrible, ghastly tragic mistake.

That still leaves open a lot of other possibilities. The shooting could still be irresponsible. It could still be a murder. We don’t have to love Amber Guyger. We don’t have to forgive her for worrying about her job with a man dying before her. But if it was all a ghastly mistake, then it was not a racial incident.

Let’s put it another way: If it was racial even in the slightest degree, then it was not a mistake. If that hand went to the holster faster because the man in the apartment was black, then no one can argue mistake. This is where we begin to get down a little deeper into white self-awareness.

If I put my thumb on the scale in my own favor and against you because I am white and you are black, then everything that flows from that act is intentional. There is no such thing as innocent racism. Racism by its nature is intentional and corrupt. It’s a moral choice. The choice is to cheat, to take an unearned advantage for oneself and deliver an undeserved disadvantage to the other.

I’m white. I just don’t think we white folks are going to get anywhere demanding reason and fairness in a case like this if we can’t first demonstrate our own reasonableness and fairness. And I don’t see much of that on TV lately. Do you remember any big white rallies on TV recently at stadiums in Minnesota or Texas or California where all the white folks were waving picket signs calling for reasonableness and fairness on racial questions? No, I haven’t seen that on TV, either. That’s not exactly the white m.o. lately, is it?

So let’s go back to that awful 911 call again. Have you heard it? It’s here.  I’m afraid you really need to listen to it, if you’re going to have any kind of opinion about this case. After you’ve heard it, or if you have already, then I have a question for you.

Think of the people personally involved in this terrible picture — Amber Guyger and the family and friends and loved ones of Botham Jean. What if all of them are trapped inside some terrible container of racial hatred that we have clapped over them like bugs in a bell jar? Can we even hear them in this land of racial standoff, this realm of stubborn mistrust and denial? This isn’t a social question for them. This is the lost life of a beloved son. This is the terrible shock and grief that we can’t help hearing in Guyger’s voice as she watches life seep out of the man she has just shot. It’s the rest of her life on earth.

Where is Guyger’s life worth what Jean’s was? Where was his life worth what hers is? Will we ever be able to drill down to that point, the place where these people are weighed for what they truly are as individuals, not as pawns in a social stalemate? These are all human beings. If we don’t see them that way, then we grind their lives to dust on the brutal wheel of our stubbornness and hatred.

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