People have been asking me how I make sense of the fact that all five of the Memphis police officers who beat Tyre Nichols to death in that heinous attack were Black. Does that mean the attack was not racist? Does it negate race as a factor in the crime altogether? Has the movement for Black lives been wrong to essentialize race in police brutality? Or was this horrific incident merely an exception to the reality that racism remains endemic in policing and criminal justice?
Before trying to address some of these questions, I want to express my deep condolences for Tyre’s family. My heart aches when I think of another senseless murder by the hands of the state.
When I learned of the races of the police officers who killed Tyre, I was mildly surprised to see that they were all Black. It’s true that the officer who initially pulled Tyre out of his car and tasered him as he ran for his life was white (and it also makes me wonder why the police department attempted to conceal the identity of the white officer, but that’s a topic for another time). But the cops who later captured and killed Tyre in those shocking videos were all Black.
There have of course been many other incidents of police brutality involving Black officers in the past. For instance, three of the six officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore were Black. One of the four cops convicted in the murder of George Floyd was Black. But in that case he was not the one who had his knee on George’s neck, causing him to suffocate. And in fact, the family of that officer says one of the reasons he became a cop was because he felt diversity could fix the police department’s racism.
But in the case of Tyre Nichols, not only were all five of the officers Black, but each had actively participated in that vicious and relentless attack on their young victim. They didn’t just carelessly toss Tyre in the back of a police van like in the case of Freddie Gray. They took turns delivering blows with their batons, shouting insults, knocking him to the ground, kicking him, and using pepper spray and tasers.
Somehow I doubt any of them joined the police force to fix it.
It complicates a narrative that too many of us have adopted: that the key to countering racism in our institutions (policing and elsewhere) is simply to diversify. This was, in fact, one of the central recommendations of the Kerner report issued more than half a century ago following the civil unrest over the summer of 1967.
In recent years, and particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, we’ve seen major efforts by companies, universities, and government agencies to incorporate principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In some ways, this opened the door for a notion to permeate that white equals bad, and Black equals good. Two years ago, former CIA Director John Brennan even mused on MSNBC that he was becoming increasingly embarrassed to be a white male. Anyone who has served as head of the CIA probably has a lot to be embarrassed about. But being a white male should not be one of those things.
I’m not saying that diversity is a bad thing. Diversity is important. But it’s not representation. It’s not accountability. And, by itself, it’s not the solution to structural racialization in America. It’s only one ingredient in the work to create belonging and move to a place to dismantle the racial caste system of othering.
The fact that all five of the officers who killed Tyre were Black bears little relevance when you understand what happened as a structural, not interpersonal, problem. We just put out a new explainer video that distills this point. When you have institutions like the police that are heavily present in segregated Black neighborhoods, you have a higher likelihood of encounters with officers. If we deny the role of racism in Tyre’s killing, it’s because we’re looking at it from the lens of interpersonal racism. I don’t believe the police targeted him because of a racial animus on their parts. But police officers, whatever their color, belong to a system that discriminates by race while incentivizing the overpolicing and underprotecting of the Black community. If the police happen to be Black, it actually helps conceal the racist workings of the institution.
The Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson offers a succinct way of understanding how people from a marginalized community might work to perpetuate a system of hierarchy that hurts “their” community. In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, she writes: “The enforcers of caste come in every color, creed, and gender. One does not have to be in the dominant caste (i.e., white) to do its bidding. In fact the most potent instrument of the caste system is a sentinel at every rung, whose identity forswears any accusation of discrimination and helps keep the caste system humming.”
So, if we cannot rely on the race of the police to spot racism, what are some indicators of it? I believe you can do so by focusing on the treatment and frequency of those stopped by the police. Blacks are not only more likely to be stopped but also more likely than their white counterparts to be brutalized and killed. Of course, no one should be subjected to such treatment regardless of race. It is wrong. But it is doubly wrong to be subjected to this dehumanizing treatment because of your identity or social status. It is an expression of terror and institutional hate directed at the individual and their community. When you and those you identify with are considered the other, you are not to be given the same voice, treatment, or dignity of those who belong.
And as we should not be shocked to find that there are some Blacks in positions of authority actively working to maintain the dehumanization of Blacks, we should similarly not be shocked to know that there are whites in authority working to promote belonging and end the ideology and practice of white dominance. This is both a disturbing and generous read on our society. And with that reality in mind, we should turn our focus on the more important question: What are we doing in our towns, workplaces, and schools to transform those dark spaces of dehumanization and othering into spaces where everyone belongs? Diversity is an important step, but it’s not enough.