The sense of outrage from journalists and political commentators since the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols became a national story is a rare moment of bipartisan consensus. But this tragedy has also exposed the inability – or unwillingness – of people to wait until all of the facts emerge before attempting to explain what caused this act of inhumanity.
We’ve got a bad case of “premature elucidation,” and the current symptoms could make the national dialogue about crime and police reform even more difficult.
The death of Nichols, a 29-year-old father, at the hands of five Memphis police officers is the latest racial Rorschach test to grip the American public. Videos showing officers brutally punching and kicking him have functioned as inkblots that speak to the emotional state of the nation.
The loudest voices on the left have – predictably – made this about “white supremacy” and the disregard that the police have for black lives. CNN political commentator Van Jones claimed – before seeing the video – that racism may have played a part in the incident, even though the five officers who were charged for Nichols’ death are all black.
The response to that charge has been ridicule and exasperation on the right, given that all five officers are black, but that factor shouldn’t be dismissed. Two scenes in the movie "Boyz n the Hood" show how quickly a black boy can go from an innocent “lil man” to a suspect, based on stereotypes, data, and real-world experience.
It is possible for members of a group to believe negative stereotypes about other members of the same group and even exhibit a sense of deep animosity toward them. If you doubt this, consider the phenomenon of white liberals. One study found they were the only ethnic subgroup that demonstrated more warmth to external groups than to their own. But it’s the prevalence of white "allies" telling other white people how racist, privileged, fragile, and oppressive they are that brings this self-hatred into greater focus.
The problem is that the hammer with the inscription “everything is racism” is the only tool in leftists' tool belts. Their willingness to deploy it here without evidence comes from the belief that every bad thing that happens to a black person – especially when a white person is involved – is due to their race. The second is their belief that policing itself is systemically racist and that the five black officers who engaged in this act of brutality are simply acting in line with the culture of the profession.
This sleight of hand allows them to move the demographic details of Tyre Nichols’ death – five black men in Memphis beat another black man to death – from the “black-on-black crime” column to the "racist policing" column.
Some people on the right are searching for their own set of explanations.
Details have emerged about some of the officers being hired after standards were relaxed in the hiring process. That allows the “back the blue no matter who” faction of conservatives to make this case about affirmative action, something that is a lot easier for them to criticize. They seem to find it hard to believe that white police officers could do something so vicious, as if Americans have never seen video of 1960s civil rights protests or Rodney King.
Jason Whitlock’s take on Tucker Carlson nearly melted down Twitter. His comments about family breakdown, female leadership, and the impact of “baby-mama” culture on young black men in major cities were met with ridicule, condemnation, and frustration from critics on both sides of the aisle.
A recent profile in the Atlantic entitled “The Murders in Memphis Aren’t Stopping” cited a longtime resident who believed the breakdown of nuclear families contributed to the city’s violent crime problem. The story also included the complex balance of race, crime, and public order that is common in many cities.
“One common way to frame the tension in Memphis and other cities like it is to say that Black communities are sometimes forced to choose between over-policing — aggressive law enforcement that keeps crime down but also infringes on civil liberties and sweeps too many people into the criminal-justice system for petty offenses not enforced in tonier neighborhoods — and under-policing, where the streets are largely ceded to criminals. In much of Memphis, however, the choice doesn’t seem to exist. Residents get both.”
These dueling narratives on the left and right are a result of our premature elucidation problem. No one can say for sure what prompted the five officers to react the way they did that fateful night. Perhaps text messages between them will show a general suspicion of young black men that made them focus on Nichols. Perhaps evidence will demonstrate a more personal connection between the victim and the officers. It’s also possible that this was exactly how the now-disbanded SCORPION unit was trained to respond to minor offenses.
The media also bears responsibility for its continued failure to properly inform the public on important issues related to policing. If an alien came to Earth and turned on CNN, he’d assume that only blonde white women go missing and only young black men get killed by the police. The collusion between activists, academics, politicians, and journalists is why most people have never heard names like Tony Timpa, Daniel Shaver, Duncan Lemp, Anna Marie Barnes, or Dylan Noble.
This tendency to cherry-pick evidence to substantiate preconceived beliefs makes it harder to have needed conversations about crime and public order. It also obscures even deeper conversations that transcend bitter partisan divisions or ethnic conflicts.
The Bible’s description of the evil that mankind devises and practices has no qualifiers for national origin. Murder, strife, malice, and ruthlessness are a reflection of humanity’s sin problem, not inherent in one skin color.
The scriptures also speak to another issue that would help us better understand these types of situations. The entire institution of policing rests on the state’s authority to make, execute, and enforce laws. The interactions between the police and citizens are regulated by the Constitution’s parameters around government power and the protection of our individual rights.
That said, all relationships involving authority are a two-sided coin. The person in authority is expected to use it wisely and justly, with an eye toward restraint and care. This is why husbands are told to love their wives and fathers are commanded not to provoke their children. For the person under authority, submission is always the biblical response to God-given authority, as long as it does not require you to sin.
Most people recoil at the very thought of submission, but that’s because we only think about it when we have to yield to the will of another. But no one likes dealing with rebels, whether in the classroom or the workforce.
What happened to Tyre Nichols was a tragedy. The beating he received was brutal and inhumane. Thankfully there was video of the incident – not just the official police account – and the officers who did it to him will face their day in court.
But as is often the case in situations like this, the response to this case says more about where we are as a culture than do the facts and circumstances of this fatal encounter. People who believe that crime is caused by unmet material needs or the proclivities some ethnic groups have toward crime are focused on the least common denominator. People who can only see skin color miss the universal propensity for depravity, which is the greatest common factor connecting all acts of inhumanity.More laws can restrain evil, but they can’t make us recognize the image of God in every human being. Only our Creator can change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.