Let’s Talk About Tyre Nichols

The Murder of Tyre Nichols and Systemic Racism in America

Racism in the U.S. is systemic, meaning it is baked into the structures, policies, and behaviors of Americans. This assertion was explained in great detail by a group of academic legal scholars including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Cheryl Harris, Mari Matsuda, Patricia J. Williams, and others in the mid-1980s. They called their findings “Critical Race Theory” even though what they were examining wasn’t a theory, it was the reality that discrimination on the basis of race or gender was illegal, but it wasn’t going away. 

When a thing is systemic, whether it is a virus or a pattern of discrimination based on race, it means that it’s grown and spread to the point that eliminating a few cells or changing a few specific behavioral patterns won’t get rid of it; it’s pervasive.

Today, Critical Race Theory or “CRT” for short, continues to be misappropriated and invoked to denounce and even dispute the legitimacy of the history of racism and race-based discrimination in the U.S. 

RowVaughn Wells, the mother of Tyre Nichols, will never see her 29-year-old son alive again due to his senseless murder at the hands of the police and a system that desperately needs fixing. There is no more evident proof of how racial bias is baked into our consciousness than his brutal murder in Memphis on January 7th, 2023. 

On suspicion of reckless driving, Mr. Nichols was dragged from his car and savagely beaten and pepper sprayed by 6 Memphis Police officers who were subsequently fired.  

We grieve the loss of Tyre Nichols and the hundreds of black men and women who have met a similar and all-to-frequent fate. Rest in power, Mr. Nichols. We must do better.

The six officers and Mr. Nichols himself were all black men and yes, race is a factor that is very much at play in this case. Confused? Did you think events like this only happened with white officers who abuse the power and authority with which they were entrusted? Or maybe you think the event was just a random occurrence and that the race of the alleged assailants or the victim is immaterial.

There are numerous signs that the underlying cause of this murder is systemic in nature.

Here are a few:

  • The incident reveals a callous disregard for human life: The black officers applied the same level of indifference and inhumane treatment to their suspect as have hundreds of other accounts of brutality by white officers on black victims. Flashback to Derek Chauvin casually restraining George Floyd with a knee to his neck as he died, or the shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, or Ronell Foster in Vallejo, or Willie McCoy – also in Vallejo, killed by the same officer. The list of victims and the troubling patterns of police violence that led to their deaths is almost incalculable.
  • The officers being black and the similarity of their treatment compared to white officers in similar situations shows that there is a systemic bias among some police forces. In each case, the organization encourages or at least allows treating black men in particular as threatening and dangerous even when there is evidence to the contrary. The black male officers in the Tyree Nichols murder were all new to the “Scorpion Unit” and only received an average of 4 days of orientation and training before hitting the streets. Given so little training and the fact that each of them was almost brand new, it is fair to assume they each adopted the behaviors that they perceived as being “normal”  in the culture of the Unit in order to fit in.
  • The behaviors of the officers were uniform and consistent: from the body cam videos on each of the officers’ persons, the consistency of their brutality reveals there were no outliers; not one of them questioned the judgment of the other. They behaved in ways that were deemed culturally acceptable within the Unit, or maybe the entire Department.
  • This lock-step uniformity of response is most familiar in systems where the unspoken rules about how one acts are clear and unambiguous. We are left to assume that the Memphis Police Dept. or perhaps just the Scorpion Unit rewards brutal and aggressive interdiction vs. proportional response towards black men in particular.
  • We have no evidence of similar treatment of white men in Memphis, indicating this mindset is SET and everyone in the system conforms to it, even black men if they want to fit in and be accepted as part of the group.
  • The 7 Black officers charged in this tragedy (a seventh officer has also been charged) knew and understood how to exercise that power, even when the people looked like them.

Systemic discrimination is about the exercise of dominance and power of one group over another. The 7 Black officers charged in this tragedy (a seventh officer has also been charged) knew and understood how to exercise that power, even when the person they were exercising power over looked like them.  

The subordination of black people and the elevation of anyone who inherits or is bestowed with that power has to adopt a white supremacist mindset which allows them to dehumanize the people they are beating. That complete abdication of common sense and lack of humanity is endemic to white supremacist systems, regardless of who the members are.   

In other words, the tragic death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of seven black police officers in Memphis doesn’t negate the reality of systemic racism and Critical Race Theory, it confirms it. Fear of punishment won’t curb this systemic problem. What will is seeing it as systemic in the first place, and disassembling it at its roots, together.

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