As America reels from the impact of yet another Black man’s murder by police caught on camera, a valuable lesson in empathy and hope has come from perhaps the most unlikely source—the mother of the young man who never made it home.
In a series of interviews with Tyre Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, rightly praised Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis for acting swiftly to arrest and charge his assailants. However, Davis’ claimed that, because the officers involved are all Black, “race is off the table.” This is not true: There can be no doubt that entrenched institutional racism lies at the heart of this case.
On that night those officers clearly made false assumptions about their victim’s inherent criminality and the threat he might pose to them based on the color of his skin. It is for the exact same reason that Black and Brown people are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by law enforcement.
I do agree with Davis that groupthink—which occurs when collective decision-making is more concerned with protecting a group’s solidarity than with doing the right thing—likely played a role Tyre Nichol’s tragic death. Groupthink is almost always the enemy of common sense and often of decency, too. But when that groupthink is combined with institutional racism, the normalization of police brutality, and a shared sense of omnipotence, it can become deadly. It can turn a collection of cowardly bullies in blue uniforms into what the Nichols family’s attorney Antonio Romanucci has called “a pack of wolves.”
Although urgently required, police reform alone will not be enough to put an end to the excessive use of force against predominantly Black and Brown people. Bad police officers, regardless of color, come from society, too. To beat someone to a pulp for no reason, then mill around laughing and chatting while he lies bleeding and semi-conscious on the ground, you can’t just be a cog in a racist system—you also have to be able to see your victim as less than human. You have to know how to other him, differentiate him from your pack. You don’t need to join a police department to learn how to do this. On the contrary, America is now so deeply polarized it takes an exceptional amount of effort for any individual to rise above the division that surrounds us and truly see the humanity in all their fellow citizens.
That’s what makes RowVaughn Wells so special. In the most horrific of circumstances, she manages to feel pity, not hate, for her son’s murderers. She sees them as human beings, real people with real loved ones of their own. “I feel sorry for them,” she said, “because they have brought shame to their own families. They have brought shame to the Black community.”
Equally amazingly, this grieving mother has somehow found hope in the midst of what she calls her “nightmare.” She believes something “good and positive” will come out of Tyre’s death, something that will reflect the kind of person he was.
Listening to her, I wondered whether I would be capable of such grace if my own Black son had been killed on his way home, if I knew his last words had been to call for his dad.
If we want to stop this senseless culture of racist police brutality, we can’t afford to just admire Wells’ remarkable message of empathy and hope. We must go beyond waving placards—important as that is— and act on it.
As a society, we have to come together to heal our traumatized families and communities. We have to lobby the Senate to finally pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Moreover, we have to do everything in our power to oppose the use of gerrymandering tactics that are designed to disenfranchise Black and Brown voters, because when you take away someone’s right to vote you are deliberately dehumanizing them and diminishing our democracy.
It gets harder. We need an empathy revolution. This revolution starts when each of us turns our backs on hatred and division and actively places empathy at the very center of our national life. This starts with education—we cannot bow to political pressure to regulate what is taught in the classroom, as is being done in some states. Rather, we must teach all America’s children about its whole history so they know how much change has already been won and at what cost, and how much they still have to fight for. We must teach them to view every other person as a human being first and foremost, and how to value and celebrate their differences, including their ethnicity. Only then will the harmful social construct of race truly be off the table.
Teachers, faith leaders, elected representatives, and community leaders have a key role to play in the empathy revolution, but they can’t do it without the support of every citizen. Each of us has to resist the urge to demonize those we disagree with, those who don’t look like us, pray like us, love like us, or vote like us. Instead, we should seek those people out. We should talk to them, listen to them, and try to recognize their humanity, however much we may dislike their worldview. If Tyre Nichols’ mother can reject hate, surely we all can.
Maybe when we all think like this, like RowVaughn Wells, all police recruits, whatever the color of their skin, will enter the force with empathy already so built in to their characters that no amount of institutional racism will be able to contaminate their souls. No officer will mistake a uniform for a cloak of impunity or a badge for a license to abuse their power. They will see every law enforcement encounter as an encounter with a human being. No innocent young man will ever again have to die at their hands on his way home to his mother. And Tyre Nichols’ legacy will indeed be something truly positive.