That the death of Tyre Nichols — young, Black, just trying to get home — came at the hands of Memphis police officers was a familiar refrain in the nation’s seemingly endless lamentation of racism and police brutality aimed at Black people.
This time around, though, it was five Black officers who were fired and charged with second-degree murder in the horrifying Jan. 7 beating that was caught on video and led to Nichols’ death in a hospital bed three days later.
But the fact that Black officers killed a Black man didn’t remove racism from the situation. If anything, say reform advocates, it showed that a police culture of racial bias and dehumanization is pervasive enough to spread in all directions, even among minority officers whose presence in law enforcement is often touted as proof of reform efforts.
“What we have to understand is it is not the color of the officer,” said Joshua Adams, an activist in Memphis. “It is the color of who’s being policed. That’s what creates the difference.” The key question is “why does policing show differently for Black people?”
Black and brown officers can be conditioned to view Black and brown people as suspect, advocates say.
“With any organization or institution, there is a period of orientation where you are being introduced to core values and philosophies,” said the Rev. Earle J. Fisher, senior pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis.
“I think this happens with police regardless of the color of the police officer. You have spent time in the indoctrination process, and part of that indoctrination is certain people on their face — from what some would call cultural bias, or others would call internalized white supremacy — you’re indoctrinated to believe that certain groups are more prone to criminal behavior than others,” he said. “And so you treat Black people as if they are guilty until proven innocent. You treat white people as if they are innocent until proven guilty.”
Legal scholar Amara Enyia said “being Black and a police officer does not undo the inherent anti-Blackness in the policing system.”
“That’s one of the most insidious characteristics of the system, because we may buy into a notion that because they’re Black means they can’t possibly have adopted the norms and values of the system,” said Enyia, policy and research manager for the Movement for Black Lives, a national advocacy coalition aligned with the broader Black Lives Matter movement.
Many of the highest-profile deaths, such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown, were due to the actions of white officers. But other deaths, including Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and Sean Bell, showed that the officers responsible could come from a range of racial backgrounds.
And more broadly, in a country riven with as many racial fault lines as the United States, no one is exempt from absorbing some brand of racial messaging throughout their lives, said Derald Wing Sue, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“We are all socialized into a society that imbues in us these images of one another,” he said. “We can, as people of color, inherit these biases toward one another and often times to our own group as well. … They come out in ways that can be very harmful unless we get in touch with them and give ourselves counter messages.”
The officers charged in Nichols’ death drew condemnation for being Black men who committed fatal violence against another Black man.
At Nichols’ funeral on Wednesday, the Rev. Al Sharpton said that while he was in Memphis for the service, he visited the site where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. He said King was in Memphis to fight for Black city workers to be able to work in sanitation and as police.
If not for the efforts of King and others in the civil rights movement, the five officers would not have had jobs in law enforcement or been assigned to an elite police squad, Sharpton said.
Not far away from the hotel balcony where King was fatally shot, the Black officers “beat a brother to death,” Sharpton said in a eulogy.
Addressing the officers, he said: “There’s nothing more insulting and offensive to those of us that fight to open doors that you walk through those doors and act like the folks we had to fight to get you through them doors.”
“You didn’t get on the Police Department by yourself. The police chief didn’t get there by herself,” he added. “People had to march and go to jail — and some lost their lives — to open the doors for you. And how dare you act like that sacrifice was for nothing?”
“You ain’t in no New England state. You’re in Tennessee, where we had to fight for you. And you take that position and do what we saw?”