The brutal killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers does not defy classification. While it will be up to a jury to determine the fates of the officers involved, all of whom have been charged for their roles in Nichols’s death, the evidence of our own eyes strips this shameful episode of ambiguity.

The officers behaved contemptibly, perhaps criminally. They issued incomprehensible, often contradictory, simultaneous orders to the suspect, who could not comply with them and was subjected to abuse as a result. Some advocates of police reform argue that there is a public policy component to this event, which renders it impossible to adjudicate in courts that are beholden to existing statutes. After all, these reformers submit, these officers’ empirical conduct is evidence of a system-wide cultural rot of which the courts are a part. And yet, despite all these appeals to evidence, many arbiters of the national discourse have chosen to argue a theory bereft of any evidence at all. They claim that this episode of police violence is another example of the racism that is endemic within American law enforcement.

The five officers who attacked Nichols, who was black, were black themselves. They serve in a department that is majority black, which is a result of a concerted and successful effort to recruit officers who look like Memphis’s majority black population. According to the Washington Post, this dichotomy has inspired “complex grappling” among activists who are often quick to cite racial disparities to explain episodes of police violence. But while the Post claims that there is a lot of soul-searching going on, its report doesn’t cite much.

“What we’ve been screaming from our lungs for years is that the system and the culture of policing trains people’s minds, regardless of the color of their skin, to behave a certain way,” said the director of the George Floyd Global Memorial. Another activist lamented the degree to which “we are not taught about institutional or systemic racism,” and others expressed the hope that Nichols’s death could serve as a teachable moment to educate the public on how violent racism is so pervasive that it transcends skin color. To survey the landscape of public opinion, this pedagogy has many willing instructors.

Writing in Forbes, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) expert Shaun Harper argued that systemic racism is a function of systems, not individuals. This insidious condition afflicts any system large enough to hire a DEI consultant—from police officers to “healthcare providers, school teachers, business leaders, and others.” Indeed, because these officers received the same “trainings as white cops” and entered into a profession “born of anti-blackness” (a defamation predicated on the dubious claim that American police forces were created to enforce chattel slavery), these officers allowed their minds to be captured by the system they served long ago.

CNN contributor and former Obama administration official Van Jones wisely stipulates that “the narrative ‘white cop kills unarmed black man’ should never have been the sole lens through which we attempted to understand police abuse and misconduct.” He adds, however, that nefarious ideas about racial inferiority “can infiltrate black minds as well as white.” He says that’s especially true in police departments where “black cops are often socialized” to “view certain neighborhoods as war zones” and in which meting out “street justice” is valorized. Jones finds it “hard to imagine” police of any color doing what they did to Nichols, but the task doesn’t require imagination. Jones’s vision may be broadened by a review of only recent headlines involving the officers charged in the brutal beating of a white suspect in Arkansas, the fatal shooting of an autistic child in Louisiana, or the public release of a misconduct report implicating Colorado police in the breaking of a 73-year-old woman’s arm who suffered from dementia and aphasia.

Contrary to activists’ claims, their efforts to popularize a racial theory of everything to explain events in Memphis are not introducing complexity into the public debate. Rather, they’re oversimplifying it. According to their theory, the offending officers cannot be individuals with unique histories and elaborate pathologies. The activist class has applied a vaguely Marxian theoretical framework to this story, which renders all the actors in it passive hostages to a variety of mental constructs, in a transparent effort to preserve their preferred grievance against the forces of complexity.

Not only are these voices compelled by the logic of their arguments to reduce the individuals and institutions involved in this violence to mere puppets of forces beyond our control or even comprehension. The community this police force serves must also be marginalized. Some, such as Nichols’s family attorney Benjamin Crump, allege that Memphis PD’s elite “Scorpion” unit, in which the involved officers served, engaged in a “pattern and practice” of “this type of brutality.” But the unit was formed only in 2021 in response to what Memphis PD Chief Cerelyn Davis called “an outcry from the community.”

Amid a spike in local homicides, the creation of this unit was part of a broader initiative summarized by Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich as an effort to communicate to would-be criminals that “we are done tolerating violent crime.” That reaction was itself a response to 2020’s record-breaking homicide rate, which had the public asking precisely when “the use of deadly force is allowed” in protecting yourself and your property.

Excessive force in arrest-related encounters with police is a devilishly complex problem. The institutions and officers that execute the nation’s laws and the publics they serve are just as complicated. And so are their critics. Everyone in this story is perfectly capable of succumbing to antinomy. But when you see political actors flattening all these overlapping factors to advance the notion that police violence occurs because Republican politicians oppose faddish metaphysical abstractions such as Critical Race Theory in public school curricula, know you’re being sold a bill of goods.

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