How could Black police officers do this?
my attempt to ask better questions in moments like these
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I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that the five officers who killed 29-year-old Tyre Nichols are Black. (A sixth, a White guy, has been removed from duty for his involvement as well, though not yet charged.)
It’s not that I don’t understand, didn’t already understand, that policing is both an institution and a culture (both of which emerged from slavery patrols, as so compellingly written about by so many academics and public intellectuals). My mind understood that, but I think my body still clings to some lizard brain understanding of white supremacy as an inheritance for and from White people—a bad seed planted in our guts rather than a free-floating, toxic gas that can be breathed in, that is breathed in, by any and all of us. I found myself feeling extra sad at this confrontation with my own psyche—white supremacy, which I knew clouded White folks’ thinking and behavior, is more powerful than I even give it subconscious credit for.
I found myself craving exceptions, wishing there was some evidence that someone is immune to the noxious gases of white supremacy and patriarchy, that someone is immune to the way they make humiliation, inequity, violence, and even death seem somehow justified. I’ve done enough inner work and reading and organizing to stop craving that I’m “one of the good ones”—such an alluring and unhelpful north star. And yet here I am, wishing that someone was unequivocally and shimmeringly good, which is to say human—one who can hold onto their humanity, and the inherent value of others’ humanity, no matter how corrupting or disfiguring the institution or culture they are exposed to. Okay, there are no bad apples, but I really want there to be good ones.
My guess is you are now, also, trying to think of who this immune demographic might be. The trope Black Girl Magic comes to mind—something that so many of my White progressive peers, particularly women, have seized on. And it’s not that I don’t think there’s some profound wisdom in trusting and following Black women (whose track record shows that, on a spectrum of keeping the main thing the main thing, they’ve got so many of us beat). Trevor Noah said it particularly beautifully:
But I also wonder about the psychological safety of this worshipful stance for someone like me. Is it really about recognizing spiritual genius and ethical impeachability, or is it a way of abdicating responsibility and damsel-in-distressing? We White women can’t seem to vote for people who respect our basic human rights, so let’s turn off our tiny brains and just do what Black women do. It’s sure better than doing what White husbands do, which was arguably White women’s civic methodology for generations (for some, still is). And it’s easier than organizing our own peers or self-examination. I’m not sure it’s that far afield from the racism we claim to be working against. Putting people on a pedestal, like looking down on them, robs them of their inherent complexity. Why should Black women have to keep saving us from ourselves to keep this democracy upright?
There are still other ways of looking at this—not only through a lens of race, but also nation. Jeff Yang, writing about the mass shootings perpetuated by Asian men lately, writes:
“Ours is a nation where the unimaginable has somehow become inevitable. If Mr. Chou, Mr. Tran and Mr. Zhao committed mass shootings, they did so not because they were Asian but as Americans. Mass murder may be the fullest act of assimilation possible into a culture that has proudly chosen as its colors the red of innocent blood, the white of panicked eyes and the hazy blue of semiautomatic smoke.”
That paragraph took my breath away. Assimilation in America can mean a lot of things—school lunches thrown in the garbage for fear of ostracization, mother tongues forgotten, and corporate ladders climbed at all costs, but it also can mean adopting and adapting to a culture of disconnection, rage, and death. It can mean becoming the police officer swept up in your own power, the guy with a gun who will no longer be f-ed with, the disgruntled and the armed.
To put it in the terms of one of my best friends who just says it real plain: On the most basic level, it’s easier for me to process the idea that White people are garbage, or White men are garbage, in particular, than to reckon with the reality that all of us are potentially garbage while intoxicated by white supremacy and patriarchy. We are all susceptible—no doubt to different extents—to the way it strips us of our innate reverence for the beauty and complexity of other people, especially Black and Indigenous people in a country whose origins are so rooted in racism, and women in a country so rooted in sexism.
If I can weather that remembering, then it leads to better questions. Not, “How could Black police officers do this?” but “How can we redesign our institutions of community safety so that violence is as rare as humanely possible?” Not, “How can I be one of the good ones?” but “How can I wrestle with my ‘badness’ and leverage my ‘goodness’—both of which are inevitable and worth paying attention to?” Not, “How can I listen to and imitate the people with the answers?” but “How can I listen to the wise folks and keep doing my own work to make this country less violent and more just?”
We must fight for gun safety and police abolition, but I think these grand visions can only come about if we ask better small questions of ourselves, especially in moments like this. The quality of our questions are signposts on the way to a safer, more honest, more beautiful nation (starting, so minimally, with signing this petition, getting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed, and getting out in the streets for your local protests).
The grand visions may feel unreachable for some us, maybe even de-stabalizing and scary. Okay, that makes some sense; we’ve been acculturated by so much fear. Keep trying to sit with that and grown braver. And as always, look outside of yourself when you have a failure of imagination. Talk to braver, wiser friends and neighbors about your fears.
I am profoundly indebted to my friends for helping me see more clearly and act more courageously. When I asked my friend Garrett about the questions I was sitting with, he sent me this amazing James Baldwin quotation from No Name In The Streets:
“Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta [his funeral], something has altered in me, something has gone away. Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make—indeed, I can see that a great deal of what the knowledgeable would call my life-style is dictated by this reluctance. Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”
RIP Tyre. I will try to ask better questions eternally in honor of the miracle you were.
Other people I’m reading/listening to on this moment and its many questions: Jamelle Bouie, Saeed Jones, Austin Channing Brown, Anna Malaika Tubbs, Mark Follman, and, yes, Garrett Bucks. If you’re looking for ways to talk with kids about this, check out LiberatED.
I'm so glad you're interrogating publicly the "always follow Black women" trope which has emerged in the last handful of years. It is an idea that comes from a truism of all systems based on hierarchies of power, that those at the bottom by necessity often maintain broader and deeper levels of insight about the nature of the system than those farther up the ladder. It's how you survive. Black women, based on their intersectional oppressions, are those people in America. But leaning on them to save us, particularly us as White women, IS simply racism wearing a velvet glove. On par with exoticization and all the other ways that we put BIPOC on pedestals while simultaneously undergirding the status quo.
And at the same time, there's just so much to keep track of these days. It's nearly impossible to formulate an informed opinion on every blessed thing. So, for me anyway, "trust Black women" is the starting place. If I want to understand something social/systemic I'm gonna start with what Black women are saying about it (or indigenous women, or AAPI women, or Latinas, etc.) and then continue learning and formulating from there. Trusting Black women is the starting place, and not the end of our obligation by a long shot.
Excellent article on such a terribly complex subject