Tyre Nichols and the Complexity of Institutional Racism

NEW YORK CITY – JULY 7 2016: Several thousand activists rallied and marched to protest recent police-involved shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana (Shutterstock/ A Katz)

Racial injustice, institutional racism, and police brutality are painful aspects of our society that we have not and should never become accustomed to. We have seen these types of injustices numerous times, particularly with the increase of closed-circuit tv and cellular phones with recording capabilities, which have been published via social and news media. However, what we have typically seen are images of white officers (or non-Black officers) beating, suffocating, and torturing Black people, especially Black men, with a sense of vitriol and impunity. We have become all too familiar with seeing various authority figures —both in official and unofficial law enforcement positions—engaging in such actions under the guise of “protecting and serving” our society. Whether it was a so-called security official, George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, or whether we are considering police officers of various ethnicities who used their position to murder George Floyd, what is apparent is that Black people have remained at risk from police officers of various ethnicities. However, what does it mean when we see Black police officers torturing, brutalizing, and abusing another Black person, as was the case with Tyre Nichols? What does this say about racism and injustice in our society, and who can be racially biased?  What this suggests is that whether or not police officers are Black, the issue of institutional racism and discrimination remains.

With the five accused Black Memphis police officers in the case of Tyre Nichols, who were captured on video beating the twenty-nine-year-old for a supposed driving violation, it was interesting to note that the main video footage was captured from the bodycam of a white police officer. This officer both used his taser, vocalized his desire for Tyre Nichols to be violently physically assaulted, and instigated the hostility which would leave Nichols’s death. However, he was not apprehended with the same swiftness as his fellow officers. What has been highlighted through this brutal attack was not just the actions of ‘thuggish’ police officers of the SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) unit, but that these officers were acting in complete disregard to their unit’s name and carried out the sentiments and wishes heard from the white officer who first engaged with Tyre Nichols. They were providing anything but peace to the neighborhood they were supposed to be patrolling.

It would seem reasonable to suggest that what we have witnessed in their actions is more than individual brutality, but it appears to be yet another manifestation of institutional racism, even though the perpetrators were Black. As much as it is disappointing, it is not shocking to see Black police officers, considered to be occupying the position of   “the upstanding community member” and officers of the law, operating in such a fashion if we consider their actions using Du Bois’ theory of double-consciousness. This is because the complexity of racism is still very pervasive in all spheres of our society and its institutions, including law enforcement.

When Black people are in positions of power within institutions, they are not only expected to adhere to the culture of the institution, but they should also have an awareness of Du Bois’ concept. This points to the idea that Black people can have two perspectives of themselves. Firstly, the Black person can consider themselves without bias, as an African diasporic person, namely having “first-sight.” Secondly, the Black person can have an understanding of themselves, their culture and people (albeit subconsciously), from a negative perspective. This is known as “second-sight,” whereby one considers oneself from a racist oppressor’s perspective. Having an awareness of double-consciousness should impact how individuals act to improve institutions rather than merely maintaining the status quo. Avoiding the wrath of second-sight —which can be viewed as self-hatred of one’s ‘race’ or the oppressor’s lens — would prevent a Black individual in a position of power from demonstrating the actions of the racist oppressor by engaging in the oppression or the dehumanization of fellow Black people.

It is important for all individuals, whilst working for an institution and trying to carve out their own reality of “life success” to do so whilst honoring all.  However, as part of achieving “success” in our society, it is well known that individuals conform to institutional expectations, thereby “doing what is expected.” As absurd as this may be, the Black officers in Memphis who abused and beat Tyre Nichols were acting in a manner consistent with the various aspects of the police force, even if this is not overtly stated through police policy. Although these police officers beat Tyre Nichols to the most severe extent and falsified their written police reports to disguise their actions, in doing so, they proved that they were acting in a manner not unusual for police culture and its approaches used against Black suspects. Notably, these officers were even more ruthless than your typical racist police officer, and therefore, they demonstrated their “investment” in their role as police enforcement as they saw it. This suggestion does not remove any responsibility from the officers for their actions. They all had a choice, and they chose to abuse and kill Tyre Nichols, beating him much like the white officers who beat Rodney King.

It is true that institutional racism may be most often perpetrated by those in power, who typically and historically have been white. However, institutional racism goes further than simply applying an analogy of “white perpetrators and Black victims.”

Instead, institutional racism defines how members of an institution —including Black individuals —will likely treat, respond, be treated and be responded to by those in contact with an institution (in this case the police). Once those police officers adorned the uniform of the Memphis police, it was no longer a matter of them operating as Black individuals. Having and implementing their “first-sight”  had no impact on their role. Instead, they were operating under the culture of police officers, implementing their “second-sight”  as police officers who conformed to oppressing and disregarding Black lives.

Some news outlets have homed in on Tyre Nichols’s grieving mother’s statement, where she said, ‘I hate that it was 5 Black men that did this!”Rather than recognizing her pain and identifying the complexity of racism, these outlets have missed the most crucial point of such a complex issue. Nichols’s grieving mother was not suggesting that she would have liked it if white officers killed her son (which, of course, would be absurd), rather, she was expressing her disappointment and hurt about the reality of Black officers acting in the same manner as white racist officers.

It is clear that institutions no longer have to write policies which explicitly state that certain individuals of color must be treated in a subpar fashion. However, due to the prevalence of institutional racism and the legacy of discrimination, it is apparent that the culture of racism and discrimination is well-established and continues to be pervasive. It is important to recognize that the most powerful institutions in the United States have evolved from a context where blackness has been treated with contempt, scorn, and dehumanization. Whether we are considering the treatment of Black women who are more likely to suffer neglect during prenatal “care” and fatalities during childbirth from healthcare providers, or whether we are considering how Police treat Black men in general, there is a common disregard for members of the Black community. Most notably, this proves that officers and authority figures do not have to be white to engage in racist actions.

As we have just commemorated Martin Luther King Jr’s day this month, we should be reminded of Dr. King’s I Have a Dreamspeech, where he highlighted his hope that Black people would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin.” However, the unfortunate component of systemic racism is that people of different racial backgrounds carry out the work of institutional violence, like policing Black bodies in various spheres of our lives. For the Black officers who engaged in the heinous act against Tyre Nichols, it is clear they were accustomed (despite also being Black) to enforcing institutional racism. It is, however, interesting to note that whilst such cases as the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor took months for the officers to be arrested or charged, in the case of these Black officers, their arrests came without the typical extended delay. As much as their arrests for this awful crime is welcomed, it highlights yet another disparity of institutional racism and how it impacts how Black people are treated both within and by institutions.

For years I have researched spaces of systemic racism and how one could achieve “life success.”  I first developed this theory when writing a Justice Ph.D. dissertation on institutional discrimination. I have discovered that in spaces like the USA and UK, racism remains deeply etched in the national psyche and within institutions that often deny Black individuals the ability to realize their own “life success.” As we have seen with the murder of Tyre Nichols, systemic and institutional racism can not only deny an individual their right to realize “life success,” but it can also deny an individual of their most fundamental right: their right to simply live.

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Anique John

Anique John is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, with a PhD in Justice Studies who specializes in Africana Studies and Human Rights. Her passion for social, institutional and immigrant justice for Black communities in the USA and UK, has been demonstrated through her research and scholarship. Focusing on the legal rights of Black and immigrant communities, Dr. John has been able to develop notable insights into societal challenges and institutional injustices experienced by minorities within Western spaces. She has used her insights to consider how marginalized Africana communities can realize what she has termed as “Life Success” (John, 2019). This theory highlights the relevance of situated knowledge to comprehend the academic and professional experiences of Africana populations, whilst providing ‘voice’ to minority individuals whose experiences of social injustice are often muted as they strive to obtain “life success.”

Comments on “Tyre Nichols and the Complexity of Institutional Racism

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    Thanks for delving into the complexities of institutional racism, culture, and identity. These issues, topics, and experiences are far more gray than binary.

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    Bravo for bringing this complexity to the story, and all the other connected stories. I’ll share the article. Thank you!

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      Hello Lois,
      I thank you for your comments and for sharing this very necessary consideration.

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    Great article! There’s a tendency when some black persons get into positions of power and authority, that they ‘forget where they came from.’ Some black persons in their attempts to assimilate and ‘make it in the white man’s world’ abandon or lose their identity. Hopefully, one day these black persons will realize that white standards ingrained in institutional racism are substandard. Please don’t lower your values to fit the institutional white standard.

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      Thank you Elaine.
      I certainly agree!

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    Race is complicated and the killing of Tyre shows how Black people, including both Tyre and the cops, can wield white supremacy ideology. For his part, Tyre Nichols despised BW and made some very disturbing social media posts expressing his disdain for blackness. I hate what happened to him, but I wish BW would start being more discriminating in who we support, especially those with white supremacy mindsets—regardless of the color of their skin.

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      Hello Kris,
      Thank you for your comment. It’s a matter of recognizing the perils of ‘second-sight’ (DuBois), in a world which despises Blackness and those who produce more Blackness, ergo Black women. The ramifications of ‘second sight’ are far reaching.

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