Parents of young Black men in the United States live with constant fear, wondering whether or when their sons will be killed by white police officers. As a result of this, African-American fathers and mothers must then have “the talk” with their sons, to ensure they do not antagonise a white police officer in any way to warrant a beating, an arrest or a shooting. Not only are young Black men in the United States more likely to be killed at the hands of a white police officer than young white men, but they are also more likely to be charged and incarcerated.
In his book Between the World and Me, the African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates asks: “How does a black man live freely in his body when that body is under constant threat of being exterminated?” Coates describes white America as a syndicate arranged to protect white power and privilege, which are used to dominate and control Black bodies. “Sometimes this power is direct (lynching) and sometimes it is insidious (redlining),” he writes.
For decades, there have been protests in the United States against extrajudicial killings of Black men by police officers. However, it was the video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed and handcuffed black man called George Floyd that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Floyd’s death through suffocation led to global calls for racial justice.
But while every African-American in the United States can expect to be mistreated or even murdered by a white police officer, how does one explain the brutal torture and murder in Memphis of a 29-year-old black man by black police officers? The victim, Tyre Nichols, died in hospital from injuries inflicted by the officers. Although the officers have been suspended and face charges of murder and kidnapping, this particular killing has left many particularly dumbfounded.
However, those who have studied how racism works know that it is quite often the oppressed who turn out to the most vicious oppressors of their own people – because they act as agents for the oppressor. In Kenya, for example, it was the African home guards who spied on and hunted down Mau Mau freedom fighters and their sympathisers. While British colonial officers were known to be particularly violent and cruel against indigenous people challenging their rule, it was the Kikuyu and other home guards who often carried out the most violent acts of torture on their fellow tribesmen and women. The colonialists rewarded these guards by bestowing certain privileges on them, hence entrenching colonial rule by turning the colonised against each other.
As James Baldwin noted, “We used to say, ‘If you must call a policeman, for God’s sake, try to make sure it’s a white one.’ A Black policeman could completely demolish you. He knew far more about you than a white policeman could and you were without defenses before this Black brother in uniform, whose entire reason for breathing seemed to be his hope to offer proof that though he was Black, he was not Black like you.”
Feminists call this phenomenon “oppression of the self” – oppressing oneself or other women in the service of the oppressor. Women become agents of their own oppression when they treat other women badly. They are, in fact, oppressing other women on behalf of men. This ensures that any movement to challenge male supremacy remains weak and fragmented.
While these self-oppressors end up sustaining the patriarchal status quo, they also end up locking women out of accessing the privileges that they themselves enjoy. We often hear of female bosses treating their female juniors badly. This can be explained by the fact that some of these women rise up the career ladder by pleasing their male bosses. Being too soft on women lower down the ladder might therefore be construed as challenging male privilege.
Tyre Nichols’ death has also laid bare the fact that the United States is an inherently violent society. It was built on the bodies and tears of African slaves. The Europeans who invaded the New World also exterminated thousands of Native Americans – a genocide that has never been fully acknowledged. Even when slaves were emancipated, they suffered from other types of violence at the hands of white people, including police beatings and killings. Being a Black in the United States makes you an easy target for any types of ill-treatment.
Unfortunately, white people in America have yet to confront their shameful, violent and racist past. In fact, there are now right-wing campaigns to keep the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade out of history books in schools. These white supremacists also have the audacity to label any discussion on racism as unpatriotic.
The American feminist writer and political activist Andrea Dworkin believed that most white people prefer to remain ignorant about slavery and racism because they might discover uncomfortable truths about themselves and their ancestors. The fact that Nichols died at the hands of black men has somehow let white people off the hook, for now. But, as I have tried to show, because racism is systemic and woven into the fabric of American society, it is not surprising that both the perpetrator and the victim of a racist attack can, in fact, be Black.