I was six years old. It was March 13, 1979. My father took the oath to become a Cook County, Illinois, deputy sheriff.
It was a decision that, for a Black man born and raised in Arkansas under Jim Crow to a family with little in the way of material resources, promised to be the ticket to upward mobility and stability. For working-class people of all races, law enforcement often holds the promise of professional and financial solidity. That was exactly what my father sought as a young man with a family and a stay-at-home wife. The only problem is that when he was sworn in, no one told him what price would be required of him for that stability.
In the early days of his time in the sheriff’s office, our material lives as a family were vastly improved. We lived comfortably enough that a few years later, my parents decided to have another child. For a young Black married couple, it was the dream.
Except that the dream came with a dark side.
Whether you are a police officer, a deputy sheriff or a state trooper—any form of law enforcement—yours is not a typical job. You have a front-row seat to human misery. You are often seeing people at their worst. You are seeing people who have done awful things. You are seeing innocent people who get caught up. You are seeing things that most of us cannot fathom. All while holding almost absolute power over the fates of the people you encounter in your job. It’s the perfect storm for interpersonal chaos.
On top of that, there is the very real fact that policing in the United States evolved out of the slave patrols. The template for modern policing was created as a way to terrorize and control Black people; it is one of the biggest branches on the tree of white supremacy.
My father, a Black man from the South—whose family line is directly tied to enslaved Africans and whose parents suffered under sharecropping—struggled with the work. It would take several years for him to admit it, though. Instead, like many law enforcement officers, he kept up the charade that all was well. After all, this job allowed him to provide for his family.
But there was the late-night drinking with other officers, the anger and rage that increasingly showed up at home, and a darkness that hung over him and—by extension—us. I only had hints from him of what he struggled with and what he witnessed, though I know part of it was watching people—far too often Black ones—ground up in the system who didn’t belong there. And not just watching, but being part of the process.
I do know that things came to a head a few years after my brother’s birth, when a fellow officer took his own life. That was the splash in the face to help my father realize that his job was destroying him—and his family—and that he was on a path every bit as dark as that dead officer even if it didn’t end the exact same way someday.
My Dad quit the department, eventually plunging us into a multiyear dance with poverty that would include a stay at a homeless shelter and government support when I was in fourth grade. It was a dark period for our family and one that for years I held against him. The only explanation I got then from my Dad for quitting was that he just couldn’t lock up Black men anymore. That didn’t hold water for me at the time. After all, wasn’t he locking up bad people who deserved to be locked up?
I would be well into adulthood with my own family before I truly understood what my Dad did in that line of work and comprehended what he was really telling me when he said, “I couldn’t lock up Black men anymore.” Many of the men that Dad worked with in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office would go on to become dear family friends, some staying on there and others moving on to become Chicago police officers. As a result, ours is a very law enforcement-adjacent family. Those men who are still alive are very much uncles to me. I still remember how they surrounded my Dad, at my mom’s funeral, service revolvers on hips and bodies at attention.
My Dad, who until his last days wrestled with my work and why I did it, never would have framed himself as an anti-racist. All the same, though, his reasons for stepping down were very much aligned with anti-racist values. The original policing system was designed to catch fugitive slaves, instill fear among Black people, and squash uprisings amongst the enslaved Africans and their enslaved descendents. It really hasn’t evolved beyond being a direct branch of white supremacy, except that in modern times anyone of any hue can be a part of it.
The reason that I share this story is because in the aftermath of the killing of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers, many are struggling with the fact that the officers accused of killing him are Black.
For some who are in their anti-racism journey, the fact that five Black law enforcement officers killed a fellow Black man so brutally might not make sense. Most of us understand the basics of racism when white police officers take the lives of Black and brown people, but that’s only one facet of how white supremacy operates.
The unspoken and uncomfortable truth is that Black people and other people of color can be agents of white supremacy. In the case of policing, the only way to survive in the job—regardless of race—is to embody the values of the system. Hence, the call of Blue Lives Matter that rose up in the wake of Black Lives Matter. But what are “blue lives?” Do you know anyone with blue skin? No—it is about how wearing the uniform requires a strict adherence to a code of power and control that is deeply tied white supremacist values and culture. “Blue lives” is just the marketing speech for white supremacy within policing. To be in law enforcement and build a life there requires accepting the marketing. As a result, you can find Black and brown officers who are far more cruel than their white counterparts—often to show just how loyal they are to the code.
However, if you are a law enforcement officer with dark skin, you will quickly find that while those “blue lives” might let you in as a foot soldier, they will never ride for you like they do for white officers. Case in point: Have we seen a case of this magnitude involving white officers move this fast? I mean, usually the police unions and the departments will do everything to protect their own. They would rally to defend the officers. In this case, as far as I am seeing, these five officers are waking up to the fact that while John-Boy might be cool with them at roll call and at the bar after a shift, they were never really in the club.
White supremacy is pretty seductive that way. It’s so sneaky that many who say they want to dismantle it still don’t quite grasp how it actually works. You don’t need white people to uphold white supremacy culture, values, and norms. You can do it just as well with Black folks and other people of color who have been seduced and who have internalized white supremacy to do your bidding.
This is why the idea that putting more people of color on police forces to combat racism is laughable. No, you dismantle those systems. It’s why most diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in most organizations are failures. Without deconstructing belief systems, anyone regardless of race can become a proxy for white supremacy.
It’s also why DEI efforts are popular. They give the appearance of change without actual change, It’s quick and it feels good. It’s why we get so happy when we see the first non-white person doing whatever. But we never question if that person is looking to dismantle the system or are they just excited to have a seat at the table. And even if they are committed to change, are they actually empowered to do so?
Systems of whiteness and white supremacy culture often pay well, allowing you to get comfortable. And, well, most people like to be comfortable. Most of us are not going to live our values to the point of destroying our livelihood. Hell, most of us won’t even support anti-racism work if money is tight. We will cancel those Patreon subscriptions or cut the DEI budget with the quickness.
Meanwhile, we may invest in empty efforts that don’t bear fruit. I mean, it typically doesn’t cost anything to share an article on Facebook. Sure, you might piss off an old family friend or racist uncle, but it still doesn’t have much of a cost for most people. But sharing articles also doesn’t change much of anything. We’ve been sharing them on social media for a long time now and nothing has changed.
Comfort and safety is also why we hold to the lie that we can only do so much—that we are doing all we can do right now. White supremacy culture wants you to limit yourself. It’s how it keeps itself going.
Sadly, nothing will bring Tyre Nichols back to life, and I have no doubt that the five Mempis officers will feel more or less the full brunt of the law coming down on their heads—all the while wondering what went wrong and perhaps never realizing they were nothing more than tools from the start.
As I have noted, my personal relationship to policing is complicated and I have been close to that world on the law enforcement side. My love for several people in my life who have been cops doesn’t change my dislike for how policing works and the oversized harm it does. It doesn’t change the fact that they are part of upholding a very nasty system. While many speak of reforming policing, I’ll be honest: I do not see how one reforms a system with such an corrupted foundation.
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Image by R.D. Smith via Unsplash