What If It’s the System That’s Racist?

Hank Waddles
3 min readJan 30, 2023
A sign reading “Justice for Tyre” leans against a tree with several lit candles in the frame.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Tyre Nichols was beaten and killed by officers of the Memphis Police Department earlier this month. I’ve written here about similar killings many times in the past, and each time I do, I know it won’t be the last. This is who we are.

I continue to write because I have to. I write because the vast majority of you who will read this are white, and some of you need to read this — not because you are racist, but because you haven’t yet become anti-racist.

I would like to scroll past the repeated images of Tyre, a young man of 29, but I can’t, because I am Tyre. My favorite professor in college, Nancy Packer, explained that we are drawn to poignant literature because it speaks to something within us. We see characters in moral danger and realize, “There, but for the grace of god, go I.” We might be reading about Bigger Thomas or Willy Loman or Pecola Breedlove, but we always understand that we’re separated from those tragic characters not by our own good deeds but by the random hand of chance.

And so it is with Tyre Nichols. “There, but for the grace of god, go I.” I don’t live in fear, but I live in the knowledge that I could one day find myself lying on the pavement, a policeman’s knee between my shoulder blades, my cheek ground into the asphalt.

You might say that many of these Black men committed crimes that brought the officers into their orbits. They swerved in traffic or passed a counterfeit twenty dollar bill or sold loose cigarettes. But sometimes the crime was carrying a toy gun or wearing a hoodie or sitting in a parked car.

There’s a tendency to focus on the actions or attire of the victim, or even his response to the officer. Tyre Nichols, after all, ran away from the officers attempting to detain him. When we watch the video, however, the desperation in his voice makes it clear that he wasn’t resisting arrest, he was fleeing for his life. Tyre had been paying attention, and certainly dozens of men-become-hashtags were spinning in his mind as the officers descended upon him. In that moment, he likely felt that he had no other choice but to run.

We have a crisis in this country, and it isn’t about the five men who committed this criminal atrocity. All five of them are Black, and that underscores the problem. As I explain to my students (here’s one thing Fox News gets right — I AM indoctrinating them), we aren’t fighting the racist ideas of individuals, we’re fighting against systemic racism, the attitudes and beliefs that have informed policies and practices in every institution in this country for the past four centuries.

We see evidence of this in the video of Tyre’s beating. Within the Memphis Police Department, this is apparently acceptable behavior. At no point does any one of the officers step back from the violence or question his colleagues. As a beaten Tyre sits slumped against a squad car and then slides to the pavement, not one officer finds the humanity to be concerned.

Instead they take turns recapping the arrest like high school football players describing a game-winning touchdown. Even in this post-George Floyd era, they aren’t worried. There is neither remorse nor a hint of trepidation that they could be disciplined for their actions. In those moments following the conquest, they are heroes.

Those five Black officers were part of a racist system, so it isn’t surprising that they behaved according to the norms of that system. It wouldn’t even be a surprise if they had begun to see Black men as dangerous, regardless of what they might see in the mirror every morning. It’s been a while since Ice Cube shared this truth in his lyrics: “But don’t let it be a black and a white one/’Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top/Black police showing out for the white cop.” Thirty-five years later, the system still hasn’t changed.

Until the system is changed, the results will be the same. Just wait and see.

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