The racism that killed Tamir Rice is more than just a “police problem”

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“You can get away with murder. You can shoot a child in an open park. You can lie about the incident. You can refuse to cooperate with investigators. You can, if a Cuyahoga County prosecutor and grand jury are to be believed, escape indictment even when the entire episode is captured on videotape.”

— Goldie Taylor, The Daily Beast

  —//—

Police shot Tamir Rice within two seconds of arriving on the scene. 

Two seconds.

It wasn’t enough time to meaningfully apprehend the situation. It wasn’t enough time for officers to apprehend the true nature of the (nonexistent) threat. It wasn’t enough time for a 12 year-old child to apprehend whatever commands police allegedly shouted just before a bullet tore his flesh.

As Charles Blow writes in the New York Times:

Take a moment and time yourself giving three commands, imagining a response from Tamir and making the decision to shoot. Maybe it can be done in less than two seconds. But to my mind, it strains credulity.

The police shot a child in an open park and lied about the circumstances.

This alone should have sent the case to trial.

Police showed utter disregard for Tamir as his life ebbed away. 

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Tamir lay on the ground bleeding for four minutes.

The officer who shot him did nothing to render aid.

When Tamir’s 14-year-old sister came running to him, she was pushed to the ground, handcuffed, and thrown in the back of a police car.

Again, Charles Blow:

She could not reach him. Her arms could not cradle his body and plead for him to hang on. Her hands could not stroke his cheek, and she could not whisper hopefully, “It’s going to be O.K.” Her eyes could not gaze into his and say what sisters are able to say without saying anything: “I love you.”

Police murdered Tamir Rice, watched his life ebb away, and treated his justifiably disconsolate sister like a criminal.

And they got away with all of it.

That’s because the racism that killed Tamir is more than just a “police problem.”  

Officer Loehmann said he believed Tamir was a real threat. He said he thought Tamir was a 20 year-old male, not a 12 year-old boy.

Loehmann may have genuinely believed all of this—but that doesn’t excuse his actions. It only proves they were tainted by racial bias.

In a 2014 study, police officers were shown photographs of children, told that each was suspected of a felony or a misdemeanor, and asked to guess their age. According to the Washington Post:

The officers overestimated the age of black felony-suspected children by close to five years, but they actually underestimated the age of white felony-suspected children.

Another study, also reported by the Washington Post, found that officers were quicker to shoot black subjects, armed or unarmed.

Officer Loehmann saw a threat where there was none. He saw an adult male where there was a child. He took all of two seconds to decide to end that child’s life.

The reason? Skin color.

We live in a country where mostly white open-carry demonstrators can flaunt their military-grade assault weapons in public—without fearing the police. Yet a black child gets shot for carrying a toy gun (in a state where it’s legal to carry real weapons in public).

There is only one rational explanation: racism.

Police are more likely to view someone as a threat—even a child—if they are black. They value that person’s life considerably less if they are black. (It says something about our country that Dylann Roof is alive today and Tamir Rice is not.)

It would be tempting to think of racial bias purely as a “police problem.” But it’s not. The same study that uncovered bias in police officers found just as much bias in ordinary white people. People like me.

We’re just as likely to overestimate the age of black male youths.

We’re just as likely to prejudge blacks.

We might like to think we would have responded differently if we were in Officer Loehmann’s shoes. But the terrifying truth is… many of us would not have.

“Implicit racial bias” is far too soft a term for what we’re describing here. Racism is a form of violence. Violence is blasphemy against the image of God in another human being.

It’s time for us to confess our racism, to confess how it has tainted our perspectives and behaviors, to renounce the violence and blasphemy we have wrought. It’s time to say #BlackLivesMatter and mean it. It’s time for us to begin the long, slow process of learning to see the world differently.

And then it’s time for us to get out of the way.

Because we cannot dictate the solution to a problem of our own making. 

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It’s not easy for me to hear words like these. But I need to hear them anyway. Far too often, people like me have tried to dictate how others should respond to the injustices they have borne.

I’m not Timothy Loehmann, but I am tainted by the same racial bias as he is. I benefit from the same system of white privilege that allowed him to walk away without answering for his crime. I am part of the problem.

I’d like to be part of the solution, too. But it’s not up to me to decide what that solution looks like. To paraphrase James Cone, a system that enslaves does not get to decide when and how slavery is abolished. A system that shoots 12-year-old black children doesn’t get to decide how to reform itself. The oppressor does not get to decide how to right injustice.

The true test of our willingness to combat racism is our willingness to relinquish power, to give up control—to submit ourselves to those we have oppressed, to let them lead the way and decide the answer. I suspect we may not all like the results. Oppressors—and those who benefit from unearned privilege—do not part easily with their monopoly on power.

Until we do, however, more Tamir Rice’s will die. And more police officers will get away with cold-blooded murder.

Photo: Millions March NYC on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

7 thoughts on “The racism that killed Tamir Rice is more than just a “police problem”

  1. Very thoughtful piece. I’m having a hard time parsing what l about “I’d like to be part of the solution, too. But it’s not up to me to decide what that solution looks like.” I generally agree. However, are there areas where people from the oppressor-group could actually lead in the solution because the issue, while hurting minorities disproportionately, is still a broader problem or societal concern? If you believe the laws governing police use of lethal force are problematic generally, wouldn’t it then follow that the person spearheading the solution could be anyone even if the issues harm one group more particularly?

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    • Thanks! You raise a valid point: systemic change requires participation across all spectrums of society. But in some cases, I think those of us in the majority (or who, regardless of size, happen to have the most power and privilege) have assumed rather than earned the right to lead. And I think we should allow more leadership to come from the communities we’ve marginalized—that’s a critical part of the un-marginalizing process. The other concern is when we presume to tell minority groups how they should respond to oppression, perhaps because their (justifiable) anger makes us uncomfortable. It’s about earning trust, sharing power, and not being the only voice at the table (which we too often are).

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  2. Racism will always be a part of our world no matter how hard we try to eradicate it as it deals with human insecurity. I can’t help but think that the lack of political leadership has played a major role in its increase.

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    • Certainly, anyone who thinks racism is a thing of the past or is easily eradicated should take a long, hard look at police violence against blacks…or the resurgent racist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. My fear, however, is that the enormity of the task might lull us into apathy when it comes to confronting racism.

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