An image of Tyre Nichols smiling is projected on a brick building with text below reading “Justice for Tyre Nichols.”
In the case of Tyre Nichols, we have become, yet again, millions of secondary witnesses to a fatal attack.Photograph by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty 

The Killing of Tyre Nichols and the Issue of Race

The case dispatches several assumptions associated with police reform.

American law enforcement can be expected, in any given year, to produce about a thousand fatal shootings in the course of executing its duty to protect and serve the public. This number is many multiples higher than those for the police departments of other Western democracies and, given the diversity of the U.S. population, occurs across an array of ethnic permutations between officers and civilians. Most deaths involve white officers who kill white civilians, but Black civilians are disproportionately represented among the dead, particularly in circumstances that involve white police. In May, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a white officer, knelt on the neck of George Floyd, causing his death from “cardiopulmonary arrest,” and set off waves of outrage across the nation. Four years earlier, Philando Castile, a Black motorist, was shot and killed by Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino police officer, after he handed over his insurance card. In 2014, Peter Liang, an Asian American N.Y.P.D. officer, fired a bullet in the stairway of a Brooklyn housing project that ricocheted and fatally struck Akai Gurley, a twenty-eight-year-old African American—sparking weeks of tension between the two communities. These incidents highlight a broader trend. A 2020 study conducted by Harvard and Northeastern University found that, in situations in which civilians pose little to no threat to police, as was the case with Floyd, Castile, and Gurley, Black Americans are three times more likely to be killed than white Americans. Policing in this country has a general, population-wide problem with violence, but that violence is also disproportionately directed at Black people.

This dynamic lies at the center of the reactions to the wrenching circumstances under which Tyre Nichols, a twenty-nine-year-old Black motorist, died from injuries he’d sustained after being pursued by five Memphis police officers, all of whom are Black. The case dispatches several assumptions associated with police reform. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, a series of studies, dating back to 2010, which suggested that college-educated police officers were less likely to use violence on the job, began to gain renewed attention. In 2021, the California State Assembly went as far as to propose legislation that would require new officers to be at least twenty-five, rather than eighteen, or to hold a bachelor’s degree. Law enforcement opposed the measure, but the age was raised to twenty-one, with plans to institute a “modern policing degree program.” The five officers charged in Nichols’s death were aged between twenty-four and thirty-two, and at least three of them attended college, and two belong to Omega Psi Phi, a fraternity dedicated to service in the Black community.

The Memphis P.D. has a long history of tensions with African Americans, even though it first integrated its ranks in 1948. The city hired nine Black officers following a series of incidents in which white officers killed Black residents—and one particularly egregious case in which a white officer beat a pregnant Black woman in front of her home, for reportedly failing to show proper deference to him. The demands of Black Memphians that their communities be patrolled by Black officers—like similar demands that resounded throughout American cities in the aftermath of the major urban riots of the nineteen-sixties—were rooted in a presumption that Black officers would be less volatile and less inclined to see them through a veil of stereotypes and biases. That logic continues to undergird recent calls for police departments that integrated years ago to be further diversified. But those presumptions sit uncomfortably with the fact that the five Black officers charged in Tyre Nichols’s death participated in a scene that was every bit as brutal as the one that led to the death of George Floyd.

In life, Nichols had been diminished to an abstraction, a target for the inchoate rage of men who were, at least nominally, part of his own community. In death, he was reduced again—this time to a cudgel with which to goad liberals for their one-note fixation with racism. Observers on the right seized on the racial uniformity of the incident as if the fact that Black cops are also capable of behaving so violently toward a Black man might retroactively exonerate similarly violent white cops of the charge of racism. “LIBERALS BLAME RACISM FOR MEMPHIS MAN’S BRUTAL BEATING DESPITE OFFICERS BEING BLACK,” a headline on the Fox News Web site claimed. The left, exasperated conservatives appeared to be saying, is so bereft of novel ideas that it blames white people even for situations in which no white people are present.

Yet seemingly few Black people have harbored the delusion that white people are the sole vectors of white supremacy. In 1897, W. E. B. Du Bois noted that among the most corrosive effects of racism was its tendency to make its victims see themselves through the eyes of people who hold them in contempt. When the Black-nationalist firebrand Marcus Garvey gave rise to the “Black is beautiful” movement, a century ago, he wasn’t trying to convince white people; he was addressing Black people who had never considered the possibility that those two adjectives could coexist. The famous doll tests designed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which Thurgood Marshall used in arguing Brown v. Board of Education, emphasized the ways that Black children internalized the belief that white dolls, and implicitly white people, were better and more beautiful than Black ones. (In 2010, CNN commissioned a psychologist to design a similar pilot study, of a hundred and thirty-three children in schools in Georgia and New York. The white children associated whiteness with positive attributes at a “high rate”; the Black children made the same association, but at a lower rate.)

Similar studies, which use word and image association to measure racial attitudes that even the people who hold them may not be aware of, have also found implicit biases. In one, nearly half of whites harbored anti-Black bias, as did a notable minority of Black people. The notion that racism is exiled to the periphery of Black environments is a misconception. The most pernicious effects of American racism were to be seen in what happened in the absence of white people, not in their presence.

It’s not possible to discern the proportion of each element that potentially contributed to Nichols’s death—the failures of police leadership; the particulars of the officers’ training; the dynamics of SCORPION, the recently formed anti-street-crime unit that the officers belonged to; their group psychology; the racist institutional history of American policing—but the fact remains that he now joins a long list of people whose deaths should not have occurred. We have become, yet again, millions of secondary witnesses to a fatal attack.

The five officers, with a haste that evades most cases of this sort, were fired from the department and were indicted on charges that include second-degree murder. So far, attorneys for two of them have said that they will plead not guilty. (On Monday, it was announced that a sixth officer, who is white and was apparently on the scene initially, but not where the fatal attack took place, had been placed on administrative leave on the same day that the five officers were fired, as was a seventh, so far unnamed, officer. Their “actions and inactions” are under investigation; they are not currently facing charges. Three employees of the Memphis Fire Department who arrived on the scene were also fired, for violating “numerous MFD Policies and Protocols,” but have not been charged.) Video footage of the incident, including from police body cameras, was released last Friday, three weeks after it happened. On Saturday, the SCORPION unit was disbanded. These actions mark either a growing recognition of the seriousness of the problem, an evolving sense of self-preservation among police departments, or both. At the same time, mastering the protocols for handling the aftermath of these tragedies only highlights the fact that we are no better at preventing them from happening. ♦