The most important, indisputable fact for us to all acknowledge in this moment of national grief and anger is that Tyre Nichols should be alive today. He should be taking photographs of Beale Street or riding his skateboard or doing any number of the daily activities he so loved to do. No one should be executed by the state in a traffic stop. And yet, as we are painfully aware, disproportionately Black Americans are.
Every time a Black person is killed by the police, we see the same cycle of attention: the hashtags, the television news cameras, the allies peacefully protesting in streets of cities across the country demanding justice. This time, unlike thousands of other police homicides, five police officers are being charged for murder in his death. But justice will not be served for Tyre, for his mother, for his family, community, and all others who have witnessed the trauma of a young life being senselessly snuffed out. Justice will not be served unless we can prevent the next police killing and the next. True justice is not after-the-fact expressions of outrage and episodic gestures of accountability. True justice requires a fuller understanding and transformation of the racist systems that lead to these police killings.
As we have seen in the years since the 2020 protests after the killing of George Floyd, the demands for justice failed to put an end to this cycle of death. In fact, the opposite has happened. Last year, at least 1,176 Americans were killed by the police — a record high for this country. And the growing numbers of young adults who count themselves among those demanding racial justice have sparked a backlash attack on the very conceptualization of structural racism. Conservatives across the country are trying to prevent the next generation of Americans from engaging with anti-racist ideas, through bans on Critical Race Theory, books by diverse authors, and courses inclusive of an honest accounting of American history.
In the wake of Tyre’s death, when people questioned how Black police officers could be racist against Black civilians, it brought to bear how so many Americans are deprived of the holistic, race-conscious education they need to understand structural racism. Opponents of multiracial democracy know that the worst thing that could happen to their own political power is for Americans to become literate about how the tragedies we protest with regularity are the product of structural arrangements that stretch back to the ugliest chapters in our history. We know that when people understand the full scope of the problem, they are not satisfied by piecemeal reforms that do not guarantee the end of terror meted out by police.
We owe it to our young people to fight for their freedom to learn the truth about the history and the current realities that we all must navigate. And more important, we owe it to them to fight with everything we have for their freedom to live.