There’s a powerful scene in the late great 1991 John Singleton classic Boyz n the Hood. Black teens Tre and Ricky get pulled over by an abusive Black cop, officer Coffey. The stop quickly escalates, with Coffey producing a gun and placing it square under Tre’s chin. “Scared now, eh? I like that,” booms Coffey as Tre is brought to tears.
That iconic scene first came to mind when the bodycam video of Tyre Nichols’ death was recently released. All five cops involved in the sadistic beating are Black, setting off a familiar reverberation around the country—including surprise that Black cops can be as brutal as white ones. The Black community already knew that having people in power who look like us isn’t necessarily a salve. But really, everyone know should this.
After all, it’s not anything that James Baldwin didn’t say in 1955 in Notes of a Native Son: “In Harlem, Negro policemen are feared more than whites, for they have more to prove and fewer ways to prove it.”
It’s not anything that wasn’t explored by Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning work A Soldier’s Play, about an all-Black WWII regiment in the Jim Crow South. That play later became A Soldier’s Story, featuring a young Denzel Washington, and puts front and center the self-hating Sergeant Vernon Waters—played masterfully by the late Adolph Caesar, who earned an Oscars nod.
It’s not anything that wasn’t revealed in Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of the “Uncle Tom” character Stephen in Django Unchained. Not to mention slavery depictions that came well before and have followed.
Americans can’t really say that we don’t know about a phenomenon which has rolled through literature, theater, Hollywood, hip hop, and even a bombastic Quentin Tarantino slavery-western mashup.
There’s also the individual testimony of Black Americans. At the tail end of a 3-day cross-country Amtrak trip, I was excited to pull into an Arizona station for a 45-minute break. I could finally go to a real grocery store instead of subsisting on microwave hotdogs. But when I saw four cop cars milling outside the station, I half considered staying put.
I ultimately rolled the dice, got some great food, and breathed a sigh of relief when those police cruisers were gone on my return.
As soon as I sat back down at my seat, however, I saw a Black assistant conductor enter the car, yucking it up with an older white couple. I knew we would have an encounter.
Still about 8 feet away, he barked at me, and only me, for my ticket. I complied. Next, he asked where I was coming from and heading, even though all that information was printed right in front of him. Then he pretended not to understand me when I told him. He eventually continued on with his newfound friends.
Black folk around the country have a trove of these stories ranging from the relatively benign to the downright terrifying. The common denominator isn’t what race the security guard is, or cop, or tour guide, or professor. The common thread is how we are treated when we engage with the ordinary institutions in our lives. Imagine a betrayal that can come from all sides, even from people who should be running alongside you.
The term “institutional racism” has floated around in liberal circles for decades. But there’s the academy, and then there’s reality. And in the day to day, it’s still much easier—and much more flattering—to think about racism in terms of individual actors and actions. It feels a lot less intractable if you cling to the idea that all is required is marshalling the goodness in yourself and your peers to finally kick this thing.
Black Americans also have some issues we need to exorcise. Scrolling through, I saw the occasional tweet asking if the five officers were ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery), referencing the reparations movement that also aims to make a distinction between American-born Black people and others in the diaspora—as if systemic racism gives a damn.
Similarly, basketball player LeBron James’ tweet that Black Americans are our own worst enemies is unfortunate and needs to be corrected. Not the least of which because it has over 25 million views and counting. But rather than browbeat King James, we should remind him that this is yet another name and yet another story that Black Americans around the country have rallied together to lift up. Tyre is us. We know he is us. And the all-encompassing pain we feel when see men who look like us recreate Strange Fruit is evidence of a knowing that will always rise above the lies.
The cultural work and testimony of Black Americans, that which figures like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are frantically attempting to swab away, still isn’t being digested. Until it is, Americans will continue to react to such tragedies with “surprise” and limited language.
Ade Adeniji is a staff writer for Inside Philanthropy and an approved Rotten Tomatoes critic. His other bylines include CBS News, WIRED, PBS Independent Lens, Mic, and The Rumpus. Ade blogs about film and television on his website, adeadeniji.com.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.