“Black” is Not Always “Black Police Defense:” An Analysis of Tyre Nichols’ Death

“Black” is Not Always “Black Police Defense:”

An Analysis of Tyre Nichols’ Death

By: George Walters-Sleyon, Ph.D.

February 5, 2023.


This article argues that the death of 29th years old Tyre Nichols, a Blackman in Memphis/Tennessee at the hands of five Black police officers: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith must also be interpreted from a historical, cultural, and racial perspective. It advances three lenses through which an understanding of Black police violence on Blacks can be derived: (1) Slavery is the Crux of the Matter; (2) Intra-Black racial dynamics; and (3) The Police Culture and non-Whites’ Inculturation in the United States. According to W. E. B. Du Bois, “The police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals, and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of re-enslaving the blacks. It was not then a question of crime but rather of color that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge.”

Slavery is the Crux of the Matter

When Portugal, Britain, France, Spain, the Dutch, Scotland, and the Americans embarked on capturing and enslaving over 15 million Africans from their homeland, it was for economic reasons and racial superiority. However, little did Europeans and Americans realize that they were setting into motion social, intellectual, and psychological structures of second-class status for Black humanity that would, unfortunately, eventually define Whites’ inhumanity to humanity. Slavery is the crux of the matter in Blacks’ and Whites’ socio-cultural, political, economic, legal, and religious relationships with invariable influences on Black-on-Black relationships in the West. For the major Western nations of slave traders, including Portugal, Britain, Scotland, France, and the United States, “Whiteness,” as a result of the assertion of White racial superiority, became the dominant racial yardstick against which other racial groups including Asians and fundamentally people of African descent are perceived. In the United States, the major slave states included: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Considering the assertion of White supremacy through slavery, Black’s approximation to Whiteness ―domestically, politically, culturally, religiously, through lighter skin complexion and marriage has always been perceived as “beneficial.” The non-White person who works in the White “world” is considered intra-racially superior to other non-Whites because of their approximation to Whiteness. Whiteness is power, prestige, privilege, and access to resources.

Blacks’ approximation to Whiteness during slavery took many forms. Prominent among them is the characterization of the “house slave,” and the “field slave.” Because of their approximation to Whiteness, the house slave perceived him or herself as superior to the field slave. The field slave on the other hand is expected to toil in the field as the master demands. The house slave in some instances may not enjoy the pleasantries of the master’s house but a subtle contentment prevails due to their approximation to Whiteness. Such an approximation would be used to keep the field slave in line. Due to their approximation to Whiteness, the house slave was often picked or selected to control the field slaves in the field. The house slave had the opportunity to be a leader of the slaves and eventually a leader in the Black community. Blacks’ approximation to Whiteness is power, privilege, and resources. In executing the master’s demands, the house slave could be just as brutal as the slave master. Black humanity in the eyes of the master was reduced to thinghood and economic utility with little or no respect. Under the instructions and caprices of the slave master, the house slave could not do otherwise but enforce with brutality the wrath of the master upon the field slave as instructed. The house slave is a Black slave who is domesticated into the worldview and consciousness of the White slave master. The post-slavery/Emancipation and modern version of the house slave are Uncle Tom. While the 21st century Black and White dynamics with respect to White approximation and power have changed, the inklings and residues of the house slave and field slave theoretical consciousness still prevail among Blacks in the United States if not endemically in the former slave states including Memphis/Tennessee.

Intra-Black Racial Dynamics

I guess by now, you have heard the phrase, “Blacks are not monolithic.” The word monolithic implies a sort of uniformity, indivisibility, or, to put it bluntly, oneness. It is a kind of oneness that is also perceptual, focus-oriented, identity-driven, relational, purpose-driven, and goal-oriented as a national, collective, communal, racial, company, or family identity. Indeed, people of African descent are not monolithic. However, people of African descent on the continent of Africa and in the diaspora often see themselves primarily as human beings, and secondarily in relation to their tribal, national, and sometimes religious identities. On the contrary, people of African descent in Britain and the West are fundamentally perceived racially. The recognition of their humanity is secondary to their racial identity. For example, in Britain and its census reports, Blacks are categorized on two levels, the macro and the micro levels. On the macro level, Blacks are categorized as Caribbean, African, Black British, Black British Caribbean, White and Black British Caribbean, and White and Black British African. On the micro level, Blacks are categorized as British Nigerian, British Jamaican, British Ghanian, British South African, etc. The racialization of Black humanity in Britain is historically endemic as a colonial master. Considering these intra-Black-racial distinctions, suspicion, intra-Black-racial jealousies, and backstabbing, competition often undermines the necessary and holistic socio-political, racial, economic, and relational engagements for individual and communal progress.

While Britain’s intra-Black-racial dynamics might be distinct contextually and geographically, the United States’ intra-Black-racial dynamics are theoretically the same. On the macro level, the US census report counts all individuals of African descent as Black or African Americans. Furthermore, the US criminal justice system refers to all people of African descent as Black. On the micro level, there is a covert and overt attraction to push the distinctions between Africans, Blacks of the West Indies, and African Americans as different “races” which is inherently problematic. In addition, individuals and researchers also push the narrative of extreme intra-Black divisions based on economic, academic, and social advancements among people of African descent in the United States. For example, you have the classifications of African Americans as “racially” distinct from Nigerian Americans, Caribbean Americans, Haitian Americans, or Cape Verdean Americans. While these distinctions might be “cultural” to some extent, they do not explain the pervading Black experience of racism, police brutalities, and the racial criminalization of Black humanity in the United States with the legacies of slavery in the background.

The Police Culture and non-Whites’ Inculturation

The United States began as a slave nation. The buying, selling, and chattel utility of people of African descent as slaves was normative-covertly and overtly in the United States until 1870. It is out of this web of Black bondage that the United States police system emerged.

Furthermore, the history of Tennessee is one associated with the buying, selling, and labor-intensive utility of Africans as slaves. Slavery and the slave trade were intensely legal between 1820 and 1860 in Tennessee. Tennessee was a slave trading and slave-holding state. Similarly, Memphis was known as an important slave market in the 1800s. How did the police emerge out of the ashes of slavery? According to W. E. B. Du Bois: “The police system of the South was primarily designed to control slaves.” He contends that “The South had no machinery, no adequate jails or reformatories and a police system arranged to deal with blacks alone, and which tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.”

The police system was a part of the flames of slavery before the embers of slavery died. The origin of the United States police is tied to the history of Blacks’ enslavement in the United States first as Slave Patrol. The targets of the slave patrol were Black people as slaves. That target has not changed over the centuries and decades. The responsibilities of the slave patrol included monitoring and keeping slaves and free Blacks in control, searching them and their dwellings for “weapons,” chasing and returning run-away slaves to their masters, enforcing the Black codes after Emancipation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1863 and 1865 and to brutally execute every mandate against the Black person. Brutality against Black humanity has always been the fundamental means of police treatment. In the cultural consciousness of the police, the Black person is an inherent target of dehumanization. One simply has to look at the police treatment of Black humanity during the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Drugs era, the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of Eric Garner, the death of George Floyd, etc., etc. With an inherent animus towards Black humanity in the consciousness, policies, and practices of the United States police system, it makes little or no difference when non-Whites join the police force. At their formal installation as members of the United States police force, non-Whites are joining a culture, a consciousness, a set of praxis with the oath of executing mandates with the origin of slavery. Non-Whites are fundamentally taking oaths to protect White institutions and social structures but with Black people as the racial other that must be protected against. “It was not then a question of crime but rather of color that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge” Du Bois.


This article contends that when five Black policemen: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith, killed Tyre Nichols, in Memphis/Tennessee, a city historically known as a former slave market in a former slave state, they were simply functioning with the consciousness of the Slave Patrol turned policemen with the consciousness of Blacks as slaves, criminals, and racial targets. Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith are not different from police officer Derek Chauvin who publicly killed George Floyd in Minneapolis or Daniel Pantaleo who also publicly killed Eric Garner in New York. They were simply demonstrating the historic consciousness and culture of the United States police system―Black humanity as criminalized and inferior to White humanity and that ought be brutalized with impunity.

Author: George Walters-Sleyon is an Author, Professor, Educator, and Speaker. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland/United Kingdom, where he studied: Comparative Criminal Justice/Criminology, Practical Theology, and Applied Ethics. George has a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and a postgraduate Master (S.T.M.) from Boston University in Philosophy, Social Ethics, and Religion/Theology. He has earned a teaching certificate as an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA) of the United Kingdom. George is a McDonald Distinguished Fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion and an Associate Fellow at the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research in Glasgow/Scotland. He has published four books: Recently: God in the Name of Jesus ChristLocked Up and Locked Down: Multitude Lingers in Limbo Revised Edition, Nuggets From the Night: An Anthology of Poetic Expressions, and Prison Chaplains on the Beat in US and UK Prisons: Caring for Aging, Dying, and Dead Prisoners. George has also written several articles. Email: sleyon820@gmail.com