The Black Police Officer in the US: An Analysis of Tyre Nichols’ Death
This article argues that the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man in Memphis, Tennessee, at the hands of five Black police officers (Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith) must also be interpreted from a historical, cultural, and racial perspective. I advance three lenses through which an understanding of Black police violence on Blacks can be derived: (1) slavery as the crux of the matter (2) intra-Black racial dynamics (3) police culture and non-White inculturation in the United States. According to W. E. B. Du Bois, “The police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals, and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of re-enslaving the Blacks. It was not then a question of crime but rather of color that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge.
Slavery As the Crux of the Matter
When Portugal, Britain, France, Spain, the Dutch, Scotland, and the Americas embarked on capturing and enslaving over 15 million Africans from their homeland, it birthed a global racial hierarchy and system of economy. However, little did the Europeans and Americans realize that they were setting into motion social, intellectual, and psychological structures of second-class status for Black humanity that would, unfortunately, eventually define Whites’ inhumanity. Slavery is the crux of the matter in Blacks’ and Whites’ socio-cultural, political, economic, legal, and religious relationships with various influences among diverse groups of Black people within the West. For slave-trading nations, Whiteness, due to the assertion of White supremacy ideologies and practices, became the dominant racial yardstick against which other racial groups are perceived — and Whiteness is fundamental to the racial perception of people of African descent. In the United States, the major slave states included: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. In the North, the slave trade and slavery existed in states including New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. According to historian Leon F. Litwack:
“The inherent cruelty and violence of southern slavery require no further demonstration, but this does not prove northern humanity. Although slavery eventually confined itself to the region below the Mason-Dixon Line, discrimination against the Negro and a firmly held belief in the superiority of the white race was not restricted to one section but were shared by an overwhelming majority of white Americans in both the North and the South. Abraham Lincoln, in his vigorous support of both white supremacy and denial of equal rights for Negroes, simply gave expression to almost universal American convictions.”
Considering the dogma of White supremacy through slavery, Blackness’s proximity to Whiteness ― domestically, politically, culturally, religiously — appears paradoxical. Even lighter skin complexion has always been perceived as beneficial. The non-White person who works in the White world is considered superior to their fellow non-Whites. Whiteness represents power, prestige, privilege, and access to resources, so proximity to Whiteness is proximity to its privileges.
Blacks’ proximity to Whiteness during slavery took many forms. Prominent among them is the characterization of the house slave and the field slave. Because of their proximity to Whiteness, the house slave perceived himself or herself as superior to the field slave. The field slave, on the other hand, was expected to toil in the field as the master commands. The house slave may not have enjoyed all the pleasantries of the master’s house, but they had greater privilege and access to power. Such proximity would be used to keep the field slave in line. For example, the house slave was often selected to control the field slaves. The house slave had the opportunity to be a leader of the slaves, and eventually, a leader in the Black community as an officer or a liaison.
In executing the master’s demands, the house slave could be just as brutal as the slave master. Black humanity in the eyes of the master was objectified and reduced to economic utility with little or no respect. Under the instructions and caprices of the slave master, the house slave had to enforce with brutality the wrath of the master upon the field slave as instructed. The house slave is domesticated into the worldview and consciousness of the White slave master. The post-slavery/Emancipation and modern version of the house slave are Uncle Toms. While the 21st century Black and White dynamics with respect to White proximity and power have changed, the residues of the house slave and field slave theoretical consciousness still prevails among Blacks in the United States, and this mindset is endemic in former slave states like Tennessee, where Tyre Nichols met his fatal end.
Intra-Black Racial Dynamics
The word monolithic implies a sort of uniformity, indivisibility, or a oneness — and Black people are often perceived as a monolithic population. It is a kind of oneness that is perceptual, focus-oriented, identity-driven, relational, purpose-driven, and goal-oriented as a national, collective, racial, or familial identity. Indeed, people of African descent are not monolithic. People of African descent, both on the continent of Africa and in the diaspora, often see themselves primarily as human beings, and secondarily in relation to their tribal, national, and religious identities. In Britain and the West, people of African descent are fundamentally perceived through a racialized lens. The recognition of their humanity is secondary to the recognition of their racial identity. For example, in Britain and its census reports, Blacks are categorized on two levels, by their continent, nations and race. They may be categorized as Caribbean, African, Black British, Black British Caribbean, White and Black British Caribbean, and White and Black British African. On the micro level, Blacks are categorized as British Nigerian, British Jamaican, British Ghanaian, British South African, etc. The racialization of Black humanity in Britain is historical as a colonial master. These intra-Black-racial distinctions, suspicion, jealousies, backstabbing, and competition often undermine the necessary and holistic socio-political, racial, economic, and relational engagements for individual and communal progress.
While Britain’s intra-Black-racial dynamics might be distinct contextually and geographically, the United States’ intra-Black-racial dynamics are theoretically the same, regardless of nationality or religion. On the macro level, the U.S. census report counts all individuals of African descent as Black or African Americans. Furthermore, the U.S. criminal justice system refers to all people of African descent as Black. On the micro level, there is a covert and overt attraction to push the distinctions between Africans, Blacks of the West Indies, and African Americans as different races, which is inherently problematic because it undermines the collective effort of the Black diaspora in unity. In addition, individuals and researchers also push the narrative of extreme intra-Black divisions based on economic, academic, and social advancements among people of African descent in the United States. In regard to police brutality, intra-Black divisions negate any collective initiative to quell the arbitrariness associated with the historical ill treatment of Black people. Like the United Kingdom, you have the emphasis of African Americans as racially distinct from Nigerian Americans, Caribbean Americans, Haitian Americans, or Cape Verdean Americans. While these distinctions might be cultural to some extent, they do not explain the pervading Black experience of racism, police brutalities, and the racial criminalization of Black humanity in the United States, with the legacies of slavery in the background. Indeed, sociocultural, political, and academic emphasis on intra-Black identities as distinctly heterogeneous in contrast to the distinct homogeneous elements is inherently detrimental. People of African descent have more in common than what often divides them through the prisms of the West: tribal, national, racial, political, and cultural distinctions.
The Police Culture and non-White Inculturation
The United States began as a slave nation. The buying, selling, and chattel utility of people of African descent as slaves was normative in the United States until 1870. It is out of this web of Black bondage that the United States police system emerged.
Furthermore, the history of Tennessee is one directly associated with the buying, selling, and labor-intensive utility of Africans as slaves. Slavery and the slave trade was intensely profitable between 1820 and 1860 in Tennessee. Similarly, Memphis was known as an important slave market in the 1800s. How did the police emerge out of the ashes of slavery? According to W. E. B. Du Bois: “The police system of the South was primarily designed to control slaves.” He contends that “The South had no machinery, no adequate jails or reformatories and a police system arranged to deal with blacks alone, and which tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.”
The police system was a part of the flames of slavery before the embers of it had even died, and all men born White were automatically a member of this gang. The origin of the United States police is tied to the history of Blacks’ enslavement in the United States first as Slave Patrol. That target has not changed over the centuries and decades. The responsibilities of the slave patrol included monitoring and keeping slaves and free Blacks in control, searching them and their dwellings allegedly for weapons, chasing and returning run-away slaves to their masters, enforcing the Black codes after Emancipation and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1863 and 1865. Brutality against Black humanity has always been the fundamental means of police treatment. In the cultural consciousness of the police, the Black person is an inherent target of dehumanization. One simply has to look at the police treatment of Black humanity during the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Drugs era, the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of Eric Garner, the death of George Floyd, and countless other examples. With an ingrained animus towards Black humanity in the consciousness, policies, and practices of the United States police system, it makes little or no difference when non-Whites join the police force. At their formal installation as members of the United States police force, non-Whites are joining a culture, a consciousness, a set of praxis that executes mandates with the origin of slavery. Non-Whites are fundamentally taking oaths to protect White institutions and social structures. “It was not then a question of crime but rather of color that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge,” Du Bois says.
Historically, law enforcement and the criminal justice system of the United States have taken the humanity of the Black person for granted. Viewed as deviants and criminals, the criminal acts of Black people do not merit cogent investigation and adjudication since such acts are viewed through the historic racial lenses and consciousness of the United States. Of course, these perceptions do not mitigate Blacks’ negative perception of America’s law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The consequences of the police’s absolute racial perception of Black people is their subjection to extreme force and brutality, early introduction into the criminal justice system, and the absence of protections for Black people. As we have seen, it makes little to no difference if the officer is Black.
This article contends that when five Black policemen killed Tyre Nichols, in Memphis, a city renowned as a former slave market, they were simply functioning with the consciousness of the slave patrol turned policemen, perceiving Blacks as slaves, criminals, and racial targets. Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith are no different from police officers Derek Chauvin, who publicly killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Daniel Pantaleo, who also publicly killed Eric Garner in New York. They were demonstrating the historical consciousness and culture of the United States police system, criminalizing Black humanity, brutally and with impunity, because it is perceived as inferior to White humanity. ♦
Dr. George Walters-Sleyon is the author of four books, a professor, an educator, and a public speaker. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland/UK, and a Master of Divinity and Post-graduate Master (S.T.M.) from Boston University/US. Dr. Walters is a McDonald Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
Walters-Sleyon, George. “The Black Police Officer in the US: An Analysis of Tyre Nichols’ Death.” Canopy Forum, June 27, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/06/27/the-black-police-officer-in-the-us-an-analysis-of-tyre-nichols-death/.