There Is Nowhere Safe When You’re Black
A screen at the entrance of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church displays the celebration of life for Tyre Nichols on Wednesday in Memphis, Tennessee. On Jan. 7, the 29-year-old driver was violently beaten by Memphis police officers after a traffic stop. Nichols died of his injuries three days later. Five Black officers have been fired and face multiple charges, including murder, in the beating death.
My mother, who was born and raised in New Orleans and moved to Los Angeles in 1955, never talked much about what it was like growing up in the South. Stories about the old country were limited to lively anecdotes about family and extended family in New Orleans’ tight-knit, overwhelmingly Creole 7th Ward. Once in a while, though, she let slip a story that spoke to a New Orleans she preferred not to remember, the one she’d escaped.
One story involved a boy she knew of who began dating a white girl. When the girl’s family realized he was Black, he was arrested on a specious charge that landed him in prison. When he turned 18, he was executed. That was it. Hearing this story, I was horrified, then indignant. I demanded to know, was there any protest?
“What did people do?!”
My mother almost scoffed. Then she shrugged.
“Do,” she repeated. No. There was nothing you could do.
That answer chilled me as much as the story itself. The atrocities of the Jim Crow South at the time are well-known, not a surprise. But what was so disturbing was to hear in my mother’s resigned tone just how commonplace they were and how Black people, however horrified they may have been, absorbed such violations as a matter of daily life. Most disturbing of all is how familiar that dynamic is today.
For all the progress on civil rights made in the last couple of generations, Black people apprehended by law enforcement in 2023 have no real expectations of safety. When they get stopped by police for any reason, there are no reliable channels of reason and appeal. As the recent tragic, totally unnecessary death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, proves — again ― Black people aren’t safe anywhere.
The progress is that there is at least more pushback now than there was in my mother’s time in the South. We avow in the aftermath of a case like Tyre Nichols’ that the death will not be in vain, that we will get justice. But even to say that is to say that there is no justice. There is no safety.
The lack of personal safety, which you have to have in order to even talk about liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is a core, intimate part of Black history that we don’t like to focus on every February. It’s the deep undercurrent of the inspiring history of Black success and individual stories of overcoming hardships that we do like to focus on, for obvious reasons. Yet it’s the lack of safety that is exactly what makes those stories so compelling. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman escaped slave catchers and Black patrols, the forerunners to modern police; Malcolm X was driven to be a disciplined Afrocentric activist after his father was killed by white racists. One of Malcolm’s main messages to Black people, one that informed many of his most impassioned speeches, was that there was no safety to be had in America — history had proved that.
Believing in safety as a viable goal was naive. Integration was a dangerous endeavor that often incited violence that was co-signed by police. Richard Rothstein’s book “The Color of Law,” a detailed account of how integration was legally thwarted across America, cites many instances in which Black families moving into all-white spaces faced harassment that often turned deadly, with the police often on the side of white hostility. It’s worth noting that the Black people who were the objects of that hostility were not poor or marginal, but middle class. Among the many fatal police encounters recorded on cellphones in the last decade or so are those involving Black middle-class victims — psychiatrists, teachers, emergency medical technicians. As Malcolm preached, safety is an illusion that no one, including the most successful and striving among us, can afford to embrace. We tend to think of the most vulnerable and least secure Black people as being poor and think ― hope ― that levels of safety correlate positively with wealth or status. We like to think that, even when adjusted for racism, wealth and status protect us. But they don’t. Black well-being has always been collective, not individual, and is always at the mercy of the country’s broader attitudes about Black people that are most visibly and consistently expressed by police. By that measure our well-being has been imperiled for a very long time, ever since Black people set foot in America.
A photo of Breonna Taylor is seen among other photos of women who have lost their lives as a result of violence during the 2nd annual Defend Black Women March on July 30, 2022, in Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington. Taylor was killed in a police raid on her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020.
I think on some level all Black people understand this, even the most deeply conservative among us; it’s one of the reasons many of us won’t look at the footage of Tyre Nichols being beaten unconscious, by other Black folks, no less. The painful meta-truth of Black insecurity, captured on video for all the world to see, is like so much kryptonite blowing up the tenuous notion that the long arc of the moral universe might have finally bent; that the Black safety problem peaked and is now in stages of resolution. There has been a peak, in that the problem has been clarified as much as it can be clarified, thanks largely to technology like cellphones, bodycams and the vast reach of the internet. But taking significant, coordinated steps to address the problem is the bend we have not reached yet, let alone moved past.
That’s because the general attitude toward Black people, which has never been good, is at something of a nadir right now. The ongoing police violence feels sanctioned by the ideological violence of the anti-wokeness movement, which formed to counter the Black Lives Matter movement that started a decade ago with the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a man in Sanford, Florida, who wasn’t a cop but who imagined himself to be. This movement sees critical race theory as not just something to object to but to violently snuff out. It wants to shred Black history, burn it and stomp on the embers. In short, the cultural warriors of the MAGA set want to make the world “safe” from not just Black people but from Blackness itself, from the possibility that a more Black-focused narrative of America will replace their narrative, morally and otherwise. These warriors seem ready to kill to accomplish that, which is why several MAGA-friendly candidates campaigning for office last year circulated photos of them brandishing weapons. It’s why Glenn Youngkin pitched himself as the anti-wokeness candidate in the governor’s race in Virginia, a heavily Democratic state, and won. Violence and anti-Blackness have always been joined at the hip, but since the GOP has willingly opened the floodgates of Black antipathy — or stood back as they were opened ― and incorporated it into politics, half of the federal government is no longer claiming to restrain racial hostility. It is the agent of it.
The shift began in 2017 when then-President Donald Trump warned about the carnage of our cities, sounding the alarm about lack of safety. He was really talking about how Black demands for their own safety and security were emotionally assaulting white folks who ultimately can’t imagine their safety and security extending to people of color. That is never, ever how things have worked.
The question is how do we counter, and encounter, all this, the institutionally approved lack of safety, the open season on Black security, not just security in the presence of police but security in our significance in history, history that embodies the best possible meaning of American exceptionalism? This is obvious to say, but the answer is not arming ourselves. For us, guns are a tool but not cultural warriorship. Self-protection has always meant something different for Black people than it does for whites who fetishize the Second Amendment: With guns, they protect their way of life; Black people protect themselves from that way of life. This is true even for Black gun owners in so-called dangerous Black neighborhoods, those who are protecting themselves in places shaped by generations of white neglect ― the kind of disinvestment, redlining and legalized racism illuminated in Rothstein’s book, which is itself a form of violence.
No, we pursue our liberty best by saying, simply, I object. This is the function of artists, though we don’t see our objecting as art: Black Lives Matter and all the other movements and campaigns for justice feel like politics, all in a day’s work ― or a generation’s work ― of being Black. But make no mistake, it is art. It is art to keep reinventing and reimagining “I object” because we have to. We create new movements, like BLM and the cultural mainstreaming of things like the 1619 Project (anti-wokeness notwithstanding), because we must, because the times, and each untimely death, demand it.