On the Murder of Tyre Nichols
Reflections on systemic racism and the question of who gets to be violent in America – and whose responsibility it is to stop the violence
Yet another state-sponsored murder of an unarmed citizen who constituted no threat – but was treated as a threat by the agents of a system that considered Tyre Nichols’ very existence as a Black man, his very being, dangerous.
Yet another public execution, a murder committed by the agents of the state, caught on camera. I will not tell you to watch the footage. It is so brutal, so profoundly disturbing: Everyone needs to decide for themselves whether or not they can handle these images that are sure to stick with you forever. I first hesitated, then finally watched late Friday night – and wasn’t able to sleep afterwards until the sun came up. It is, for lack of a better term, sickening.
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The fact that it is sickening cannot, to be clear, be a reason to ignore this murder. I sympathize with people who say they can’t watch the footage. But every citizen, every adult in this country – every white adult, in particular – has a responsibility to read, listen, learn about what happened.
As I am struggling to articulate how deeply disturbed and outraged I am, this newsletter – and my reaction in general – cannot be primarily about my feelings, the feelings of a white man in an elite position. White America must engage and empathize: It is responsible for erecting and upholding the systems that predictably and consistently produce these outcomes; white America is responsible for dismantling them. But white America must never pretend to know what it feels like to exist under the conditions of such a system as someone who does not have the “fortune” to be considered white. Only people of color know. Only Black men know what it’s like to live in a system in which every interaction with the police could easily turn into a life-threatening situation; only Black parents know what it’s like to see their children get in the car and understand that every traffic stop could threaten the life of the person they love most in this world.
So, no, this must not be about my feelings, about how it makes me sick. But maybe there is a chance to use that feeling as fuel and turn it into something more productive – if it makes us pay attention to the sickness that causes all this.
The sickness is systemic. The killing of Tyre Nichols was not an exception. It was the outcome the system is set up to provoke and produce – and therefore keeps producing with a regularity that is shocking, but shouldn’t surprise anyone. This is the system of white supremacy in action, this is what structural racism looks like.
“Oh, but all the officers were Black…” That pseudo-objection is everywhere right now. It often comes from people whose sole purpose as public commentators is to distract, confuse, and obscure whenever there is a chance America might finally tackle systemic racism. They are often the same people who *always* find a reason why the police actions were justified, why the unarmed citizens were indeed a threat and ultimately to blame for their own death (an “argument” that betrays a worldview predicated on the idea that Black men are inherently dangerous and therefore need to be kept in check at all times). Ignore them all.
I want to believe that sometimes, the “But the officers were Black…” objection is not simply motivated by the will to distract, but comes with an actual question mark, expressing a sincere desire to understand. That’s where, hopefully, Tyre Nichols’ murder will get people to grapple with the essence of structural racism: What it is, how it works, how and why it leads to discriminatory outcomes. Systemic racism is not about the attitudes of individual actors. That is not to say that interpersonal racism – individually held resentment and antipathy towards a certain racial group, good old bigotry in a traditional understanding – doesn’t exist anymore; it very much does. But those individual attitudes are not necessary for the system to produce racially discriminatory outcomes. Most of the officers who mercilessly killed an unarmed citizen were Black. It should serve as a brutal reminder that people of color, when fulfilling the task the system has assigned them, in the way the system has conditioned them to do, in the manner the system is constantly demanding and incentivizing, can become part of the system and help the system produce racially discriminatory outcomes. Not only is the individual identity of the people in the system not proof that the system isn’t racist, or a safeguard against the system’s racism: People of color even become complicit and help to legitimize that system, as their very presence will inevitably be presented by those who have an interest in upholding the status quo as proof that systemic racism doesn’t exist (anymore). Some people of color participate deliberately in such a way, even make it their mission to support the system; most are simply drafted into positions where they end up representing, executing, and upholding it. Almost all of them will realize in some form that one way of gaining access to higher status under conditions of white domination is for them to constantly prove that they are different from the others who the system regards as “lesser” and dangerous, to prove it by being an extra reliable agent of the system, especially towards other people of color.
It is important to note that police violence doesn’t affect people of color only. There absolutely is a policing problem in general. At the same time, police violence disproportionality affects people of color. It’s not about “making everything about race,” but about acknowledging racism as a key factor. There is a problem of racist policing.
Police violence disproportionality affects people of color everywhere in the U.S., regardless of the specific demographics of the police force. That doesn’t mean we should absolve individuals and can’t hold them responsible for their actions. But it does mean this is an institutional issue that needs to be tackled at the institutional level.
These are not my original thoughts on systemic racism, of course. It is merely my attempt to synthesize some of the key insights and scholarship of people who have experienced, studied, and dissected systemic, structural racism for many decades. The existing literature on this is indeed vast. It can be an intimidating task to dive in – that’s certainly what it felt like to me when I decided I needed to better understand race and racism as organizing principles in America’s past and present.
Let me emphasize a few people and pieces who might serve as accessible entry points. In reaction to the murder of Tyre Nichols, both Simon Balto and Perry Bacon wrote important articles on the reality of policing and police violence in America, on why there has been so little change since the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, and on why any serious reform effort needs to tackle the intuitional level. Back in the fall of 2020, Bree Newsome reflected on the role and functioning of Black officers in racist policing. After the release of the video of Tyre Nichol’s murder, Sherrilyn Ifill focused on the responsibility of white America to reform policing – rather than to conveniently blame the lack of structural reform on (predominantly Black) activists who are supposedly doing the activism all wrong. Historian Elizabeth Hinton has a great chapter in “Myth America,” edited by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, on the history of police violence, with a focus on the 1960s. And finally, please read Victor Ray’s latest book “On Critical Race Theory,” which came out last summer and provides an incisive analysis of the structural, systemic nature of racism in the United States (it comes with the wonderful side-effect of providing lasting immunization against any reactionary moral panic over “CRT”).
I want to address one other pervasive reaction that is as unsurprising as it is frustrating. After every public killing of an unarmed citizen, every instance of police brutality documented publicly, the police, politicians, and pundits send out a warning to civil society: “You have a right to protest – but the situation must not get violent!”
Just like with “But the officers were Black…”, this is coming from two different camps. One is just openly hostile to the protesters and opposed to the ideas that are animating them, to any kind of change; in this case, the intent is to delegitimize protests by pretending *that’s* where the violence starts, that’s where it originates – with the protesters.
But maybe, hopefully, there is also a second camp of people who can be asked to reflect critically on what they are actually saying when they are assigning blame in such a way. I often think back to an undergraduate seminar I taught back in Germany, in the fall/winter semester 2016/17, on the U.S. in the 1960s with a focus on the struggle over civil rights and democracy. This was the time of the 2016 presidential election; we read MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” the week after Trump was elected president (which was rather coincidental, I must say: I had not designed the syllabus with a specific focus on the chronology of the election). My students – all but one or two German citizens, all but one white; statistically, we can assume that most of them had at least an upper-middle class background – knew who Martin Luther King was. But the King with which they had been familiar was the same sanitized, sterilized version that is on display over here every year in official MLK Day proclamations, especially from conservatives – the one that doesn’t go beyond “I have a Dream…” and “peaceful protest is good.” That was the prism through which they read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and, at least at first, it mostly shaped what they were able to see. It also conditioned their reaction to Malcolm X, which they uniformly rejected as “too radical” and “too violent,” adding that “you can’t solve racism by adding violence to the mix.”
This is not the place to offer extended thoughts on the 1960s civil rights struggle or the politics of Malcolm X. The point is: Most of us white people, just like my German students back in 2016, are conditioned to *not* see the violence around us – the violence, oppression, and coercion people of color experience all the time, the violence the system perpetrates to uphold a certain political, social, cultural, and economic hierarchy. But we are predisposed to start noticing and recoil when the protest against that system, out of desperation, turns violent. That is why my students almost reflexively interpreted Malcolm X as the party from which violence originated – even though we were looking at a context in which the vast majority of Black people in the United States had been living in a white supremacist apartheid regime in the South for decades. This conditioning lends legitimacy to the attempts to obscure the violent, coercive subjugation to which the protests are a reaction by locating the origins of violence with the protesters themselves instead.
I am not here to scold my students. Back in that course in 2016, the week after the election, we had a very intense 3-hour discussion (and more such discussions throughout the semester); not all of them wanted to see, but some did start asking different questions, realized they wouldn’t be able to adequately understand the history and present of the United States without addressing those blind spots. That’s maybe a reason for… not optimism, that would be too strong, but hope. Hope that we can do better. We must do better, must grapple with the systemic nature of white supremacy, with what structural racism is, how it works, what outcomes it produces. We must force ourselves to see the violence and coercion of the system – not just the threats to the system. And then, maybe, we can go from there.
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The Right is working hard to try to discredit the very idea of structural racism, to erase the history that proves its existence and to vilify attempts to make necessary change. George Floyd's murder and following protests in 2020 initially sparked a big interest in learning about systemic racism and making change. It's essential for those of us who are identified in this society as white to keep learning about the things they are trying to hide. Systemic change can't happen until more of us speak and act up.
From The condemnation of blackness : race, crime, and the making of modern urban America
By Muhammad, Khalil Gibran:
“For white Americans of every ideological stripe--from radical southern racists to northern progressives—African American criminality became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public Safety.”
What the author’s describing is a racist way of thinking dating back to the progressive era and Jim Crow laws--about 115 years ago. But the quote is relevant to what’s going on in our right-now lives so it raises the question why institutional changes take so long. Is the tradition of racism in America too strong to resist extirpation? So like it or not racism will continue to be present in our lives.
Muhamad, Khalil Gibran makes clear in his book that the institutions of higher learning scientifically linked crime with blackness and gave educated authority to racism and educated justifications for keeping blacks under surveillance and staying away from them. If you were white.