Not Every Atrocity Is About White Supremacy

Why I am skeptical of the reflex to attribute violence to structural racism

A photo of people protesting the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Seth Herald / AFP / Getty

On Friday, Memphis police released body- and street-cam video of five officers beating Tyre Nichols, an unarmed civilian who later died of his injuries. Unlike many recent notorious examples of police brutality, in this instance the victim and perpetrators were all Black, leading to confusion and distress. The basketball star LeBron James tweeted, “WE ARE OUR OWN WORSE ENEMY!” This kind of self-directed criticism is familiar to anyone who has had their hair trimmed in a Black barbershop. What is novel today is the amount of anger and the specific form of critique that James’s tweet, for one prominent example, engendered. One of the more polite and reprintable responses: “i’d say white supremacy was our worse enemy but okay lebron.”

White supremacy used to refer to the belief, encoded in both custom and law, that white people sit at the top of a biological racial hierarchy and that they must remain there. But in the past decade or so, it has become a much vaguer and more totalizing concept, denoting invisible structures, latent beliefs, and even innocuous practices, such as punctuality, that supposedly maintain the comparative advantage of white people at the expense of everyone else. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the period of racial reckoning that followed, all manner of experience was probed for evidence of “white supremacy.” Some on the left have adopted the term as a sort of shorthand for the invisible hand of all American social and political life.

This understanding of white supremacy has led progressive journalists and activists to bring attention to (some might say obsess over) racial background in lethal encounters involving white and nonwhite people. George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, was a white Hispanic. Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, was not merely an agent of the state but specifically a white police officer. Derek Chauvin, a white man in a multiracial group of officers responding to the scene, was the one to kneel on George Floyd. When Robert Aaron Long, a white man, murdered eight mostly Asian workers in three massage parlors in Atlanta in 2021, he said he was a sex addict and suggested he was driven by shame. But some community leaders insisted that anti-Asian animus was the X factor. According to one media narrative, repeating Long’s professed motive amounted to making “excuses” for “white male murderers.”

For some on the left, whiteness and white supremacy retain their explanatory power even when white people are nowhere to be seen. The same year as the spa shootings, when Americans were bristling against school and business shutdowns and crime rates were spiking, nationwide hate crimes against Asian Americans surged by 339 percent. Anti-Asian violence in America has always been “a diverse and majority-minority affair,” as Wilfred Reilly wrote in 2021. “The 2019 Bureau of Justice Statistics report [found] that 27.5 percent of violent criminals targeting an Asian victim are black and only 24.1 percent are white.” Yet as video and anecdotal evidence emerged of vicious Black-on-Asian assaults and homicides, progressives wouldn’t let go of their hobbyhorse.

“Ultimately, there is a failure to remember what got America to this place of racial hierarchies and lingering Black-Asian tensions: white supremacy,” a 2021 Vox article explains. “White supremacy is what created segregation, policing, and scarcity of resources in low-income neighborhoods, as well as the creation of the ‘model minority’ myth—all of which has driven a wedge between Black and Asian communities. In fact, it is white Christian nationalism, more than any other ideology, that has shaped xenophobic and racist views around Covid-19.”

Like everyone I have spoken with, I was sickened and saddened by the killing of Tyre Nichols. When the videos were released, I was visiting my parents, and the footage was all any of us could talk about. Any attempt to make sense of the atrocity felt insufficient. My mother, an observant Christian, pointed to the existence of evil. My father, a sociologist by training, noted how power dynamics can affect, or corrupt, encounters between strangers. I stressed the role of ego and general incompetence—these officers were young, granted far too much authority, and grossly inexperienced.

Writing at CNN on Friday, Van Jones offered another explanation under the headline “The police who killed Tyre Nichols were Black. But they might still have been driven by racism.” It is certainly possible that the five young, dark-skinned men who beat Nichols so mercilessly had each internalized a poisonous self-hatred. (On Monday, the Memphis police department revealed that two other officers had been disciplined as part of the investigation, at least one of whom is white.) And there is also a serious argument to be made that racism does not require interpersonal malice but may be understood as the limited and limiting system in which individuals make free but constrained decisions. In the latter telling, the institution of American policing is foundationally derived from southern slave patrols and now operates as a disciplining force to protect capital and hold the poor and marginalized in place—all of which makes it an inherently anti-Black enterprise, regardless of the racial or ethnic makeup of the individual officers in its employ.

I am, to a degree, sympathetic to these views. I will never forget the day my brother had his front teeth separated from his mouth by the cold flashlight of a cop whose skin was darker than his own. But I am deeply skeptical of the reflex to attribute all violence and misconduct to structural racism, to impose that smooth framework on every atrocity no matter its jagged grain. I tweeted in response to Jones’s headline that we ought to at least consider the possibility that these five officers’ reprehensible actions fall on them alone.

By the next morning, that tweet had gone viral. I attempted to extend the thought further, writing, “Twitter is an amazing prism because you can watch fringe epistemologies congeal into orthodoxy in real time. A view that still strikes most as an enormous stretch—that white supremacist racism explains bad actions of non-whites even where no whites are present—is one example.”

This statement drew support as well as ire. The writer Joyce Carol Oates quoted it with a rebuttal: “yours is a somewhat disingenuous interpretation of a simple theory: that the race of the victim may determine the punishment, regardless of the race of the perpetrators. (in which case, if the victim had been white, the Black officers might have treated him less brutally.)” That tweet went viral, too, generating millions of views. Soon, my notifications were flooded with responses making a similar point, many of them quoting a specific passage from James Baldwin’s 1985 book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen:

Black policemen were another matter. We used to say, “If you just must call a policeman”—for we hardly ever did—“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.

Baldwin made this point with psychological acuity throughout his career. In his 1955 debut, Notes of a Native Son, he writes—eerily, in light of Memphis—“There were, incidentally, according to my brother, five Negro policemen in Atlanta at this time, who, though they were not allowed to arrest whites, would, of course, be willing, indeed, in their position, anxious, to arrest any Negro who seemed to need it. In Harlem, Negro policemen are feared even more than whites, for they have more to prove and fewer ways to prove it.”

Those were Baldwin’s insights some 40 and nearly 80 years ago, respectively, and they say something historically true with ramifications for the present. I erred on Twitter in dismissing as merely “fringe” this position—that even nonwhite actors can buy into notions of their own personal or group inferiority, and also contribute to their own structural disadvantage. And yet, is even Baldwin’s exquisite articulation really the last or even the most compelling word on what is happening between and within groups in 2023?

Americans hardly have a monopoly on brutality, or state-sanctioned brutality, such that only peculiarities of American history can explain violence in the present. We have spent the past year observing groups of white-skinned Russian men do unspeakable things to the white-skinned Ukrainians at their mercy—things most of these same men would never do by themselves—simply because they were together and they could. Strength is provocative; weakness is too. I believe that this is what my father means when he invokes power dynamics (it may also be what my mother means by evil), and it cuts across every ethnic line.

In the case of Tyre Nichols, in particular, the offending officers are Black, but so is the city’s chief of police, the majority of the force she oversees, and the community at large. The notion that the most likely explanation for this specific horror in this specific locality at this specific time ought to be reduced to a permanent, invisible, and unfalsifiable force called white supremacy veers dangerously close to determinism. Perversely, this infantilizing logic can’t help but absolve the five officers of responsibility for a heinous crime that most people and most police officers of any background do not commit.

Such moral reasoning has become conventional wisdom, embraced vocally by white liberals, among others. But white and nonwhite people alike should be wary of forfeiting their agency so easily. We should always remain skeptical of systems-level thinking that reduces the complexity and unpredictability of human action to a simple formula.

Why did those officers kill Tyre Nichols? I don’t know, and I’m wary of anyone who says they do.

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