On January 7, 2023, five Black Memphis police officers brutally beat 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, a Black man, during a traffic stop. Nichols was hospitalized after the coordinated assault, and died three days later.
This horrific event—captured in video released late last week by the Memphis Police Department—was a reminder of how, three years after worldwide mass protests over the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and extended debates over the range and viability of police reform, the basic coordinates of police predation on unarmed Black citizens remain fundamentally unchanged. Glib talk of a new racial reckoning in the wake of Floyd’s killing has once more been overtaken by the brute logic of police impunity. Indeed, if Americans were more honest about our country’s history, we’d realize that racial reckoning isn’t produced by news coverage or reform. No, the reckoning is the murder. The organized killings of unarmed Black Americans like Floyd and Nichols is how the state reaffirms the order of things whereby Blackness is the pathology and anti-Blackness the cure.
Since Nichols’s murder, the media has focused on the race of Nichols’s murderers. There is debate about whether Black Americans can be racist. Some argue that Black people are incapable of racism because racism requires power. Others have said the five Black officers who murdered Nichols did so because of racism. What underlies all this discussion is a deeper and uglier truth: Americans are all anti-Black, because anti-Blackness is the governing force of the country’s interests.
W.E.B. Du Bois best captured the antagonism between Black existence and American interests in his 1897 book, The Conversation on Races. “Am I an American or am I a Negro?” Du Bois asked.
Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only possible practical aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the American?
As Du Bois laid out the basic terms of identity, Black citizens can be good Americans only by being bad negroes. The corollary truth here is that to be a good negro is to be a bad American. This pair of principles continues to shape the basic terms of debate in matters of racial justice today. Colin Kaepernick was a bad negro for protesting police violence. Martin Luther King Jr. was a bad negro for fighting for equal rights—until he was martyred and posthumously deemed a prophet of character-obsessed colorblindness. Barack Obama was accused of being a bad American after he said a white police officer, James Crowly, arrested Henry Louis Gates for the sin of entering his own home while Black. The bonding ritual that allows Americans to assert our nationality is anti-Blackness.
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This is often true among Black Americans as well, as the Nichols killing makes all too plain. In a 1994 Los Angeles Times poll, 43 percent of Black Americans said they believed that stricter laws and prison sentences would increase discrimination against minority groups. At the same time, larger margins of Black respondents endorsed just such measures: 71 percent said juveniles who commit crimes should be treated as adults, and 67 percent supported draconian “three strikes” sentencing laws. In other words, the entire country is willing to harm greater numbers of white people (intentionally or otherwise) to ensure a wider sacrifice of innocent Black Americans in the name of general public safety.
It soothes the American psyche to believe that police violence results from good intentions gone awry. If the violence is the result of poor training, lack of diversity and leadership, or the use of banned restraints, the structural mechanisms that create this broad-ranging system of racial predation can be reduced to individual breakdowns in logic or decision-making. In the same way, the experiences of Black victims of state violence become scrutinized for telltale signs of the wrong sort of Blackness, further making lethal police impunity seem like a reasoned choice. All these pantomimes of serious public inquiry begin and end with the same precept: Blackness is the problem.
Even when Black critics assail the perpetrators of anti-Black violence, Blackness is still at fault, with Black Americans continuing to symbolize the nadir of criminality. After the video of Nichols’s beating was released, LeBron James tweeted: “We are our own worse enemy.” Al Sharpton said the crime is “more egregious” because Nichols was beaten by Black cops. “These five cops not only disgraced their badge,” he said. “They disgraced our race.”
I understand this sentiment. But the credo “Don’t do it to your race, do it to others” is rooted in the same anti-Black thinking that facilitates white supremacy. The idea that the actions of any Black person condemn the entire race is an anti-Black one.
The scene would not have been easier to take in if the officers were white, but Sharpton and James weren’t wrong to point out how hard it is to watch Black men bludgeon another Black man to death. The scene defies a long-held shibboleth of race reform—that Blackness by itself can neutralize structural racism. If Black Americans themselves carry out the state’s lethal conquest of Black Americans, where can we seek respite?
The cruel truth here is that there is no respite on a plantation. When placed in the context of slavery—which is to say in the history of American policing—the notion of an uncomplicated and salvific Blackness falls apart: The institution of slavery was an evil that couldn’t be neutralized by diversifying enslavers. Black slave drivers did not ennoble slavery.
Indeed, an examination of the civic history of disparate law enforcement and punishment in Memphis points up this discomfiting continuity in the logic of racial power. The five Black men who murdered Tyre Nichols were members of Memphis’s SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) Unit, a now-disbanded gang of about 50 overseers tasked with violent crime reduction. The Scorpion Unit was launched in November 2021 in response to an increase in crime during the Covid pandemic.
In 1878, an epidemic of “Yellow Fever” prompted municipal leaders in Memphis to recruit one of the city’s first cohorts of Black police officers. These men were elevated from the “better classes of the colored people” to serve as police officers because they “faithfully guarded” two-thirds of the city’s stores and dwellings during the epidemic. Among them, Moses Plummer stands out.
Plummer was born free in Illinois but abducted and kidnapped into slavery as a child. Plummer’s enslavers trafficked him into Memphis, where he was sold at the “Great Negro Mart,” owned and operated by Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who later became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. After the Civil War, Plummer returned to the slave yard. But he was no longer a slave, as the erstwhile site of the city’s slave yard was now the headquarters of the Memphis Police Department. (Just to underline the relevant historical continuities here, the city’s Reconstruction-era police headquarters is only a two-minute walk from the current Memphis Police Department HQ.)
If diversity were a firm structural safeguard against racist police predation, then Plummer’s story would have been the crowning achievement in bringing racial justice to a Southern police force. Instead, Plummer became a symbol of apparent race betrayal: In 1881, he shot and killed Ed McKissick, a Black man. The local Black community vilified Plummer as a disgrace to the race, in much the same vein as Sharpton’s appraisal of the five Black officers who beat Nichols to death. According to the Memphis Daily Appeal, the masses of “Negro men and women seemed to be anxious to hang” Plummer. He was acquitted on all charges after he successfully argued that McKissick was armed at the time of the shooting. A year later, Plummer was witnessed “beating” and kicking” an intoxicated Black man on Beale Street.
By 1948, Memphis’s Black police officers were confined to patrolling Beale Street and were not allowed to arrest white men. When a Black citizen of Memphis named Eli Blaine lost an eye in a police beating—part of a wave of racist attacks by cops in the 1940s—Black protesters sought expanded enforcement powers for Black members of the force. “We are not advocating negro stooges on the police force—those who gamble by night and stooge by day—and there are plenty of such negroes,” one statement from the Memphis World, a Black biweekly newspaper, proclaimed. “We do not claim that all negroes are good or that all white men are bad—but we do claim there are upright, honest negroes of integrity who would sacrifice better jobs to help render service to the peace and welfare of the Memphis Police Department, and justice to their own people.”
In 1970, 13 Black police officers in Memphis, dealing with the aftermath of America’s abortive Second Reconstruction in the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, told a reporter that they felt they were “white men with Black skins.” But this assumed identity proved to be unstable. “Every morning I remember I’m a Negro,” one of the officers said.
The year before, the Memphis Press-Scimitar documented what had for decades been the effective remedy for this state of internal division among Black Memphis cops, reporting that back in Plummer’s day they were “forced to be brutal to prove their law enforcement zeal.” Black police officers, now as then, must choose every day between “Black skin” and a white psyche intent on uprooting and destroying it. Or, to adopt Du Bois’s enduring terms of analysis: In order to be a good agent of the state, one must have an ardent interest in brutalizing Black people.