Illustration of protesters and police against a blue background.
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

Why There Was No Racial Reckoning

Systemic problems will not be solved by representational victories.

MEMPHIS, Tenn.—If the summer of 2020 was, for many Americans, a breaking point, then the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd presented the nation’s leadership class with a crossroads. Would they radically rethink American policing, or would they retreat to the safety of piecemeal reform, earnestly applying Band-Aids over bullet wounds? Two and a half years later, Tyre Nichols is dead, and the choice they made is clear.

It’s not that nothing was done. Some departments vowed to make more data available, and others launched exploratory efforts to let specialists respond to mental-health emergencies. Activists in a handful of cities succeeded in securing cuts to their police budgets. Some cities proposed ending armed traffic enforcement.

But there was no Great Reckoning in American policing. No sweeping act of atonement. No radical reordering. Not even, at scale, the “reimagining” championed by the moderates. In many cases, reactionary backlash has outpaced the changes that prompted it. Society’s moral vacuum had been laid open before us. Rather than plug it, the most powerful among us watched as we were sucked further into the abyss.

On January 7, the Memphis Police Department announced that during a traffic stop for “reckless driving” the night prior, “a confrontation occurred, and the suspect fled the scene on foot.” When officers caught up with the suspect, the department claimed, “another confrontation occurred” before the man was finally taken into custody. Complaining of “shortness of breath,” the 29-year-old was brought to a nearby hospital. Three days later, Tyre Nichols was dead, and a grotesque spectacle of Black death began.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C. J.” Davis would later say that she immediately recognized the urgency of the situation. Within days, five officers were fired, and a federal probe was launched. Officials allowed Nichols’s family and their lawyers to watch the videos of what had happened, which they described afterward as “far worse than Rodney King.” Nichols, they said, had been savaged like “a human piñata.” The officers were charged with second-degree murder. Television journalists, some of whom had been granted an early viewing of the videos, counted down to the public release as if it were a sporting event. What we were about to witness, they warned, was disturbing.

At 7 p.m. ET on Friday, January 27, the Memphis Police Department released four video clips. Two, from body cameras, depict behavior both concerning and commonplace. Officers immediately escalate, shouting contradictory commands without considering Nichols’s attempts to comply. They deploy violence—pepper spray, a baton, a stun gun—far exceeding any threat posed to them or the public.

A third video captured the crime. The officers catch Nichols in Brandywine, a sprawling subdivision where brick houses sit clustered around cul-de-sacs. They tackle him to the ground. They pepper-spray his eyes. They strike him with fists and a baton. Two officers hold Nichols down as a third unleashes winding kicks to his head. Writhing in pain, Nichols screams for his mother. A handcuffed Nichols is held upright as an officer delivers punches to his face. A dazed and dying Nichols is propped against a car as officers gather around him and coordinate their stories.

This all happened in one of the spots where Memphis has spent millions on surveillance. Just a few steps away, a camera was affixed on a light pole. Its flashing blue light would have been impossible to miss, had any of the officers ever looked up.

Public commentary quickly converged around three points. The first was that Nichols’s death was as disgusting a display of police violence as could be remembered. Second: The race of the offending officers—all five initially charged with murder were Black—was in some way significant. Third, ongoing attempts to rid policing of wanton violence have clearly failed.

Much has been made of the whiteness of the officers involved in prior such incidents. Now the seemingly new dimension offered by the involvement of Black officers required explanation. To some commentators, the officers’ skin tone validated what they had been insisting all along: that America’s policing problems are not about race. On a single morning after the videos’ release, National Review featured three articles on its homepage declaring that Nichols’s death was not about racism. Even to some on the left, the fact that mass protests had not erupted could be explained at least in part by the officers’ race.

Based on my experience covering policing and unrest, I’d proffer a more straightforward explanation: the timely release of information and forthright steps to hold the officers accountable. Civil unrest arrives most often in response to cryptic, protracted sagas.

Los Angeles burned only after the officers who brutalized Rodney King were acquitted, the final insult in a year-long saga. Ferguson became the site of mass protests when police refused to explain why there was a dead teenager lying in the street, and again when, after three months, residents learned that the officer who shot him would walk free. City officials in Baltimore remained tight-lipped after the rough ride that resulted in Freddie Gray’s death; more than two weeks later, police had still not offered a coherent explanation. Parts of the city burned. By the time George Floyd was killed, Minneapolis and the nation were fed up with more than five fruitless years of protests about policing. After spending months of 2020 holed up in their homes, everyone was desperate to come outside, activists and arsonists alike.

Police and prosecutors across the country—who routinely put on public display guns, drugs, and money seized as evidence in criminal cases—typically insist that releasing basic details about incidents in which officers kill people will irrevocably damage their investigations. They hem and haw about why they can’t release videos, fire killer cops, or secure criminal indictments. Officials in Memphis managed all of it in just 20 days.

Yet as much as the Memphis Police Department is an example of a newfound transparency that has taken root in the decade since Ferguson, the city has also provided a reminder of the limitations of reform.

Here is a department with a Black woman police chief, a majority-Black workforce, body cameras, de-escalation training, and a duty-to-intervene policy. And Tyre Nichols is still dead: beaten by Black officers in violent scenes captured on the officers’ body cameras after they themselves escalated the interaction. No officers intervened. For all of her clarity and grace, Chief Davis is a breathing reminder that systemic problems will not be solved by representational victories. The solution to police violence is no more the hiring of Black cops than the solution to mass incarceration is gender diversity among prison guards.

Memphis is a city that drips with history. You can almost hear Isaac Hayes behind a piano at Stax as you walk Beale Street. And you can almost see Ernest Withers, twin-reflex camera around his neck, setting up the perfect shot, and Ida B. Wells furiously clacking at her typewriter as she prepares the next edition of her newspaper The Free Speech and Headlight. There’s Martin Luther King Jr. leading the marching sanitation workers—his final campaign.

As I landed in Memphis last week, thick balls of ice began falling from the sky, the start of a days-long freeze that paralyzed the city. Still, the usual cast of characters braved the cold to pay their respects. Family members of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Stephon Clark made the trip. The Reverend Al Sharpton took a private plane. The Nichols family’s lead attorney, Ben Crump, drove several hours after getting stranded at the Atlanta airport. Vice President Kamala Harris represented the White House at Nichols’s funeral—a short, solemn service in which everyone sang from a familiar songbook. “The only thing keeping me going right now is that I really, truly believe that my son was sent here on an assignment from God,” Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, told the assembled mourners. “I guess his assignment is done.”

After nearly a decade of writing about police violence, I no longer travel to every city that has just experienced a brutal killing. But it had been almost three years since a case like this had forced its way to the front of the nation’s consciousness, even for a moment. It felt important to be in Memphis and witness, with my own eyes, this chapter of our never-ending story. And so I sat, in a chilly overflow room set up in Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, looking up at a television monitor as Tiffany Rachal—whose oldest son, Jalen Randle, was killed by police in Houston last year and who was one of many mothers of the movement in attendance—sang the gospel staple “Total Praise.”

In Memphis, Davis herself commissioned the team that killed Nichols: the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The task force of 40 officers would be deposited in the city’s most violent areas and told, as Davis put it, to “be tough on tough people.” Referred to as the SCORPION unit, the team was part of the city’s response to a record-high 342 murders in 2021. As The New York Times reported, Mayor Jim Strickland bragged in his 2022 State of the City address about the hundreds of arrests made by the unit. Meanwhile, Black Memphis was being terrorized.

Such units are known for “weak supervision, a high degree of independence, no accountability, [an internal] feedback loop,” and they are “encouraged to be aggressive,” says Walter Katz, a vice president at the criminal-justice philanthropy Arnold Ventures, who has worked in police oversight since the 1990s. “They have this mandate to stop street crime, and then the mandate tends to be far broader than the actual problem.”

The expansion of these units has mirrored the rise of “hot-spot policing,” in which departments analze which neighborhoods have the most frequent crime and then send resources and man power. But each department chooses its remedy from a long menu of options. Hot-spot policing is a principle. What matters is the practice. Police could deploy officers determined to build trust in these “hot spots.” Instead, they tend to dispatch men in tactical gear driving unmarked Dodge Chargers, instructing them to make stops until they’ve got guns and drugs to put out on the table.

Since Nichols’s death, Memphis has disbanded SCORPION and announced a review of other specialty task forces. But these teams—described by police public relations as “elite,” known in the streets as “jump-out boys”—exist in cities across America and in some cases have been in place for decades. Many are havens for troubled officers.

“In every city in America, they have got one of these organized-crime units that trample on the constitutional rights of Black and brown communities,” Crump, whose work on these cases has earned him the nickname “Black America’s Attorney General,” told me after Nichols’s funeral. “I have never heard of an organized-crime unit going to brutalize our white brothers and sisters in their neighborhood. Show us that video.”

As Black America pleaded for safety, elected officials in Memphis and across the country provided them instead with police. If the dream is a world in which a 29-year-old Black man can safely complete a drive home unmolested by those who would do him harm, civilian or police, the nightmare in which we reside is one in which Tyre Nichols is pulled from his car and pummeled to death just minutes from his family’s house.

Moments after first watching the video footage of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death, I turned to The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin’s 1985 essay about what was then the country’s most perplexing true-crime story.

The terror in Atlanta stretched 22 months from 1979 to 1981 and resulted in more than two dozen corpses—all of them Black, most of them children. Nearly everyone assumed that the slayings were the work of a single perpetrator. Many, perhaps especially in Black Atlanta, took as a given that the killer was white, probably a Klan member. Then officials announced the arrest of a Black man named Wayne Williams, who was charged with two of the killings but, authorities tenuously insisted, could be tied to the rest as well. This news unleashed, as Baldwin writes, “the instinctive attempt to calculate the meaning of the new dimension suddenly given to an old dilemma.”

Speculation swirled about whether the murders were an act of self-hatred. It’s true, Baldwin concedes, that there are self-hating Black Americans, especially among police forces. But inasmuch as race was a factor here, Baldwin observes, it was in the way Black Atlantans had been left abused and abandoned by their nation. Descendants of those enslaved in America had been forced into crowded ghettos and kept out of quality schools; degraded by a criminal legal system that sought to scapegoat them for society’s ills; denied jobs and wages, the opportunity and means for the socioeconomic advancement also known as the American dream.

Baldwin understood then what many still fail to see now: Racism can reside not just in the heart of a killer but also within the skeleton of the system that produces him. “The moral vacuum of any society,” Baldwin wrote two years before his death, “immediately creates an actual social chaos.”

My copy of Evidence lived for years on my father’s bookshelf before being clandestinely expatriated to my own. It has a fading black-and-white spine, and its cover features a close-up of Baldwin’s face cropped so tightly that all you see is his right eye. The foreword to the paperback, issued in 1996, was written by Derrick Bell, who was Harvard Law’s first Black tenured professor.

“James Baldwin was not a lawyer, yet his commentary on the Atlanta trial is enlightened by his astute assumption that racism in American law cannot be understood by reading statutes and legal decisions removed from the context of the political, economic, and social concerns that gave rise to them,” Bell writes. “Deeply embedded racial beliefs and presumptions doomed the Atlanta children to an environment where all manner of predicaments and perils haunted their days and threatened their lives.”

Bell began his legal career in the 1950s as a civil-rights attorney and later worked under Thurgood Marshall, but his best-known legacy is the early inspiration for what became known as “critical race theory,” or CRT—a discipline that applies a critical lens to legal statutes and precedents, considering not just the words on the page but the context in which they were drafted.

“From the perspective of critical race theory, some positions have historically been oppressed, distorted, ignored, silenced, destroyed, appropriated, commodified, and marginalized—and all of this, not accidentally. Conversely, the law simultaneously and systematically privileges subjects who are white,” Bell said during a 1995 speech at the University of Illinois in which he said CRT’s aim is “to empower and include traditionally excluded views and see all-inclusiveness as the ideal because of our belief in collective wisdom.”

In the decade or so since his death, Bell’s work has been subject to a steady stream of histrionics. The term critical race theory is now applied to any teaching on race that conservatives believe will upset white Americans. Critics claim that critical race theory is a form of “racial essentialism,” although it is, in fact, the opposite. CRT seeks to understand how intersecting identities factor into someone’s experience with our legal edicts and societal norms. It does not suppose that individuals can be defined solely by those identities. The aim is a country in which humans equally created are actually treated as such; that’s only achievable by understanding how the social concept of race continues to shape the American experience.

Some see an act of police violence involving Black officers and are quick to dismiss racism as a factor. A critical race theorist would argue that it is impossible to understand a killing by an institution that descends, in part, from slave patrols without considering the racist bias ingrained over time.

None of this controversy would have surprised Bell. After decades of scholarship, he developed a theory called “interest convergence,” which posits that America’s white majority takes strides toward racial equality only when white people see doing so as in their own best interest. Ultimately, Bell concluded, racism is a permanent feature of our society, unvanquished not because white Americans are inherently incapable of doing so, but because they are persistently unwilling to.

On the eve of Tyre Nichols’s funeral, his family gathered at the Mason Temple Sanctuary, in the pulpit where, 55 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech. Nichols’s parents and siblings fanned out along the stage, flanked by local ministers and activists, many holding signs featuring one of the final photos of Nichols, which depicted him bruised and bloated in a hospital bed.

Sharpton introduced Amber Sherman, a 22-year-old activist among those leading the local protests. She outlined the family’s demands. They want accountability for all of the officers involved that night, she said. They want to improve police-data transparency, end the use of armed officers for traffic enforcement, abandon pretextual stops, and disband all specialty task forces.

When the floor was opened for questions, a Black activist who had been seated near the front of the sanctuary spoke up. He told Sharpton that he was a decorated Vietnam veteran and a member of the New Black Panther Party, a small militant group that has appropriated the name of the 1970s organization. Clearly, he said, all of the chanting and marching had failed to liberate Black men and women from the perils that haunt their days and threaten their lives. “My experiences teach me, if you want to stop somebody from striking you, you’ve got to strike back,” he said, before looking up at Sharpton and asking, “Do you think it’s time?”

Sharpton demurred. “I’ll let you speak for yourself,” he responded as the press corps in the pews and activists on the stage let out a chuckle. Then Nichols’s older brother, Jamal Dupree, wearing a white-and-black starter jacket and a red flat-brim, approached the microphones.

“My brother was the most peaceful person I’ve ever met in my life. He never lifted a finger to nobody, never raised his voice to nobody,” he told the man. “If my brother was here today, and he had to say something, he would tell us to do this peacefully.”

“Trust me. Me personally, sir? I would love to get busy,” Dupree continued. “But I’m stepping for my brother, not for myself.”

I locked eyes with Sharpton and raised a finger to let him know I had a question.

“What will be different this time?” I asked after he called on me. Sharpton has been an activist for more than half a century, and for as long as I’ve been alive, he has specifically championed Black families whose loved ones have been killed by police. The year I was born, in 1990, he marched for Phillip Pannell in Teaneck, New Jersey, the town to which my family moved the summer before kindergarten. During my grade-school years, he’d been across the Hudson, demanding justice for Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. As I finished high school in suburban Cleveland, he was back east in Queens, chanting the name Sean Bell.

Since the mid-2010s, I’ve followed him and other activists as they’ve hopscotched across the country, answering questions at gatherings like this one—the only real difference between one case and another being, seemingly, the name on the cardboard signs. What if, as Derrick Bell theorized, American racism is truly intractable?

It was a layup of a question for an activist as seasoned as Sharpton. But it felt right for the venue. The probing and layered inquiries happen behind the scenes. Press conferences are theater in which we all play a part. And besides, it had been a while, and I wanted to watch him work. Sharpton typically begins small and then goes big. He starts in the contemporary then traces his way through history.

At the federal level, he said, this must prompt the passage of legislation ending qualified immunity—the provision that shields police officers from civil liability. At the state level, Nichols’s death must result in the passage of a law to make it a crime for a cop to stand by and watch another officer brutalize a civilian.

“They never even asked him for his license and registration; they grabbed him out of the car,” Sharpton riffed. “Until they understand it’s going to cost them personally, it won’t stop.”

Sharpton likes to draw a distinction between lifelong activists like himself and social-justice celebrities who vanish between the hashtags, gone just as suddenly as they came. Say what you will about Jheri curls, gold chains, and Tawana Brawley: No other person this side of King has as consistently decried the unchecked police abuse of Black Americans, and he knows it.

He is right when he says that movements take time. It was nine years from the Montgomery bus boycott to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Today’s discussions of ending armed traffic enforcement and shutting down specialty task forces would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Where might we be a decade from now? Faith, the Book of Hebrews instructs, is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.

“How long is it going to take?” Sharpton asked, looking back down at me from his perch in the pulpit. “Well, however long it takes, we gon be there.”