Posted on January 30, 2023

The Police Who Killed Tyre Nichols Were Black. But They Might Still Have Been Driven by Racism

Van Jones, CNN, January 27, 2023

Three decades ago, when four White Los Angeles police officers were videotaped beating Rodney King, the public outcry was heard around the world. {snip}

What happened to King was horrifying — but at least he survived the ordeal. Tyre Nichols, tragically, did not survive his: {snip}


Five former Memphis police officers, fired for their alleged actions during Nichols’ arrest, have now been indicted on charges including kidnapping and murder. {snip}

By all accounts, Nichols was a good guy: a 145-pound skateboarder, an Instagram photographer, a Starbucks aficionado. Learning that your child’s life was senselessly stolen from him is every Black parent’s nightmare. But — surprisingly to many people — the five officers charged with viciously beating him were also Black.

How do we explain Nichols’ horrific killing, allegedly at the hands of police who looked like him?

From the King beating to the murder nearly three years ago of George Floyd, American society has often focused on the race of the officers — so often White — as a factor in their deplorable acts of violence.

But the narrative “White cop kills unarmed Black man” should never have been the sole lens through which we attempted to understand police abuse and misconduct. It’s time to move to a more nuanced discussion of the way police violence endangers Black lives.


One of the sad facts about anti-Black racism is that Black people ourselves are not immune to its pernicious effects. Society’s message that Black people are inferior, unworthy and dangerous is pervasive. Over many decades, numerous experiments have shown that these ideas can infiltrate Black minds as well as White. Self-hatred is a real thing.

That’s why a Black store owner might regard customers of his same race with suspicion, while treating his White patrons with deference. Black people can harbor anti-Black sentiments and can act on those feelings in harmful ways.

Black cops are often socialized in police departments that view certain neighborhoods as war zones. In those departments, few officers get disciplined for dishing out “street justice” in certain precincts — often populated by Black, brown or low-income people — where there is a tacit understanding that the “rulebook” simply doesn’t apply.

Cops of all colors, including Black police officers, internalize those messages — and sometimes act on them. {snip}


At the end of the day, it is the race of the victim who is brutalized — not the race of the violent cop — that is most relevant in determining whether racial bias is a factor in police violence. It’s hard to imagine five cops of any color beating a White person to death under similar circumstances. And it is almost impossible to imagine five Black cops giving a White arrestee the kind of beat-down that Nichols allegedly received.


In short, racial animus can still be a factor, even when the perpetrators are all Black. And that’s especially true if these actions are a part of a broader pattern and practice within the Memphis Police Department.

It’s a sad fact, but one that’s old as time itself: People often oppress people who look just like them. The vast majority of human rights abuses are committed by people who look exactly like the people they are abusing.