Tyre Nichols’ death shows how racism even impacts Black officers

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The death of Black people at the hands of law enforcement has become so commonplace that it’s easy to feel both outraged and psychologically numb.

Over the past few decades from Rodney King to George Floyd, we have become front row spectators to grainy and, in some cases, graphic footage of police officers engaged in horrific levels of violent behavior toward people of African descent.

We can now add Tyre Nichols of Memphis, Tenn. to the growing number of victims, a list that is already far too long. The world recently witnessed Nichols, 29, being savagely kicked and beaten at the hands of five police officers: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith and Desmond Mills Jr.

“I’ve seen the video myself and I will tell you I was appalled,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. The same day, the city of Memphis released footage of the three-minute beating at the hand of the officers, who have been charged with “second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression,” according to the Associated Press. Two other sheriff deputies have been placed on leave, and the city’s controversial scorpion unit has been disbanded.

Sad to say, but not surprisingly, the standard police report of the incident was manipulated to claim Nichols was armed, had tried to reach for their guns, was resistant to arrest and uncooperative at all stages of the incident. Fortunately, video footage that was released sharply disputed and dispelled false police allegations. The Justice Department has launched an investigation into the matter.

Needless to say, the incident is unsettling on many levels.

There are some people (in particular, White people) who claim that racism is absent from the story,given the fact all officers involved are Black. How can a Black person be racist against a Black person? Unfortunately, individuals of every race can harbor racism toward one another. Intra-racial prejudice or nativism does exist, and Black cops can be racist against Black people.

From the colorism (light skin/dark skin saga) to socio-economic and educational stratification to certain religious preferences (the latter three examples apply to all races and ethnicities) and so on, the Black community has had its history of social and cultural divisions. This is rooted in a psychological racism stemming from White supremacy.

Black law enforcement has had a particular adversarial relationship with the Black community, specifically those in lower income and working-class communities. In his iconic and critically acclaimed 1991 film “Boyz`N’ The Hood,” the late director, John Singleton detailed what he saw as the deep level of animus that Black law enforcement displayed toward their fellow Black brethren.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Crime and Punishment in Black America,” James Forman Jr. details at length how Black police officers are just as inclined to harbor anti-Black bias a white officers. Forman is not alone. In one of his numerous essays, mid 20th century intellectual extraordinaire James Baldwin recalled that Black officers had to work so much harder to prove himself to their white colleagues.

“‘If you must call a cop,’ we said in those days, ‘for God’s sake, make sure it’s a white one.’ We did not feel that the cops were protecting us, for we knew too much about the reasons for the kinds of crimes committed in the ghetto; but we feared black cops even more than white cops,” Baldwin wrote.

There are police officers and other members of law enforcement who are decent, law-abiding human beings who manage to perform admirably doing a job that undeniably is stressful. There also is a faction — one is too many — who adamantly and shamelessly abuse their power. Internal bias, cultural stereotypes and other factors notwithstanding, Black people are human beings and deserve to be treated with as much respect and dignity as any other group of people.

These killings are modern day lynchings. Such sadistic behavior and wicked disregard for people of color cannot continue.

Copyright 2023 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.