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Heather Mac Donald on the Tyre Nichols Case, Racism Red Herring, and Civilizational Breakdown

“Policing may enter a death spiral if racism remains the predominant explanation for the Tyre Nichols case,” says Heather Mac Donald. “It’s going to drive more people out of the profession … and it’s going to enter a vicious cycle.”

After a traffic stop on Jan. 7, Nichols, 29, attempted to flee and resisted police arrest. Video footage shows him being repeatedly beaten by several police officers. He required hospitalization and died three days later on Jan. 10.

“In this case, there’s no evidence of race coming in at all,” says Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute fellow and author of “The War on Cops” and “The Diversity Delusion.”

“What it is an instance of is clearly incompetent officers that never should have been on the force and possibly, totally incompetent training. There’s two possibilities,” she says.

Mac Donald’s upcoming book is titled “When Race Trumps Merit.”

We discuss the assault on meritocracy, the erosion of education standards, and what she sees as the breakdown of civilization.


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek:

Heather McDonald, Such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Heather Mac Donald:

Thank you so much, Jan. It’s always a pleasure talking with you.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to look at this whole Tyre Nichols attack. I don’t know if we can call it a murder at this point, but it certainly looked like that based on the video footage that I found. I would like to wait and have the dust settle and we can have a bit of perspective on what happened. You always offer a very thoughtful perspective. To start, if you could just tell us based on what you’ve seen and what you know, what happened there.

Ms. Mac Donald:

There are many different ways of answering that question. There are the brute facts and then there’s the underlying explanation of what happened. How did this happen? As to what happened, we still don’t really know why he was pulled over. The officers initially said he was driving in the wrong direction.

There had been a whole history of reckless driving in Memphis, as there has been in many cities after the George Floyd riots. The police have backed off of car stops, and driving, especially in inner city neighborhoods, is completely maniac. The rate of death by traffic crashes is way up in inner city areas.

Reckless driving was one of the concerns that the police chief and Memphis residents had. In response to reckless driving, she created one of these specialized units with the acronym Scorpion, that was supposed to go after reckless drivers and be on the lookout for violent crime.

Two officers in the Scorpion unit pulled over Mr. Nichols. Again, we don’t know why. They say reckless driving. The authorities in Memphis say, “We have not been able to confirm that.” When the videos kick in, these officers are already basically out of control. They are giving Mr. Nichols contradictory demands. “Show your hands,” “Keep your hands down,” “Get out of the car,” “Stay in the car.” They drag him out of the car.

The officer’s tactics for arresting a suspect are incompetent. They have nothing to do with the proper procedure for making a car stop, and for subduing suspects. In car stops when you have multiple officers, one officer is supposed to take the lead and everybody else follows him. Instead you have these contradictory commands. Nobody’s the superior and nobody’s the subordinate in the stop. They drag him out and the violence is already beginning.

At some point Mr. Nichols escapes, even though they’ve tried to tase him at that point, and he starts running. Now my usual position on instances of officer use of deadly force or highly physical force is you can basically prevent all such horrible incidents by complying with an officer. Just do not resist arrest. Do what he tells you to do. Don’t run, don’t flee in your car. Take it up with your lawyer afterwards.

In this case I don’t blame Mr. Nichols for running, because these officers were behaving like maniacs. I would have been scared out of my life as well. So, he runs. The officers are so out of shape, they lose track of him. Another group catches up with him and one from the original group does. At that point in the second stop it’s even worse.One officer in particular, Officer Martin, seems to be the most sadistic. He’s kicking him in the head when he’s down.

The other thing that is heartbreaking about this, officers should be trained these days in deescalation. This is the idea that we want them to have some psychological tools to be able to defuse a situation, because usually it’s the suspect who is escalating things by increasing levels of resistance, and officers should be able to talk him down. It’s also known as verbal jiu-jitsu, to be able to psychologically counter the escalating situation.

In this case, in both stops, it was Mr. Nichols who was trying to de-escalate and saying, “Man, I’m on the ground. Here’s my hands. What do you want me to do?” They were the ones that kept up this rain of blows. No supervisor showed up until the very, very end.

Again, this is something that is contrary to standard procedure, and what they should be learning in the academy. As soon as one of the officers had used his taser, that should have resulted in a call for the supervisor to show up. The officers at various points appear to have taken off their body cameras or turned them off, and that’s also a violation.

This incident has been falsely portrayed by President Joe Biden and by the mainstream media as an instance of white supremacy. Now obviously, there are many ironies there. Yes, Nichols was black, but all five of the main officers who now have been indicted for murder were also black. That is a poisonous narrative, one that does not accord with the facts.

It is an instance of clearly incompetent officers that never should have been on the force, and possibly totally incompetent training. Those are two possibilities. The training provided by the Memphis Police Department is grotesquely inadequate and is failing to convey to officers that they’re not practicing car stops, they’re not practicing tactics. Or the training is sufficient, and these officers were simply cognitively and psychologically incapable of absorbing it.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’ve written the book, The War on Cops. One of the things that cops are charged with in this war on cops, is being brutal and basically out of control. This situation seems to validate that somehow.

Ms. Mac Donald:

Absolutely, Jan, that’s the worry. The legitimate question to ask is whether this body camera video, and also there was video camera from a pole, a streetlight camera, whether it’s given us a window into day-to-day policing. Now, I happen to think not.

Another thing that supervisors in well-managed departments do is they’re supposed to periodically review random snippets of officers’ body camera tape. If there was systemic brutality going on that should have been caught.

I don’t think that this situation is representative. The fact of the matter is policing is so much more professional today, especially in departments like New York City. Whether Memphis is a backwater, I don’t know, but I have to think that if this was truly systemic, there would’ve been charges about this before.

But it is a valid question. And in this case as well, I usually feel like the civil rights division of the Justice Department is too quick on the trigger. It jumps into departments, wants to put them under these federal consent decrees, and investigates them.

In this case, while I don’t think this is a civil rights issue, I don’t mind the Justice Department going in and taking an external look at the Memphis Police Department and trying to figure out if this was predictable. Is it a failure of supervision? Is it a failure of training, or is it a failure totally because of recruitment standards?

Mr. Jekielek:

You started to talk about this earlier. One of the charges which is being made, which is confusing to many people, is that it’s actually an example of white supremacy. You’ve written that there was actually this kind of pause in trying to understand how this would be the necessary narrative, if I’m reading you correctly.

Ms. Mac Donald:

It’s a pause in, “Gee, we have to keep the white supremacy narrative going. So, what do we do? We’ve got these black officers. I know…we’ll now redefine racism. Racism now has nothing to do with the perpetrator and everything to do with the victim.” Van Jones, the CNN commentator, was first out of the gate with an essay saying, “Be not abashed you Black Lives Matter activist, this is still racism. It still shows that policing is fundamentally racist, because now anything bad that happens to a black victim is by definition racist.”

Now I have to say, there is a shred of a plausible argument in their idea that black officers can be racist too. Their argument is that the whole culture of policing is such that any officer of any color is going to absorb a set of attitudes towards black suspects. Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you can’t be a white supremacist. I think it’s a stretch, but it’s not completely crazy.

But in this case there’s no evidence of race coming in at all. On the other hand, Jan, I’m reluctant to quickly say, “Of course it can’t be racism because they were black,” because that presumes that the charge, “It must be racism because they’re white,” is any more legitimate. I’m never going to make that argument either. I want some sort of affirmative evidence in either case that racism played a role.

But in any case, the racism thing immediately was reestablished as the dominant narrative. You had President Biden, before the video tapes coming out, saying, “This just shows us once again about the systemic inequities in the criminal justice system.” In other words, towards blacks.

After the tapes went out he revived a favorite trope of his own that he picked up from President Barack Obama, which is that every time a black child goes out into the streets his parents are correct to fear that he might be abused or killed by a cop, something that is completely belied by the data. It is just not the case.

Yes, blacks have much more reason to fear that they’re going to get shot when they go outside. The reason is not because of white cops or cops or white people, it’s because of black criminals. Blacks between the ages of 10 and 24 die of gun homicide at 25 times the rate of whites between the ages of 10 and 24.

They’re not being killed by cops, they’re not being killed by whites, they’re being killed by other blacks. That’s the reality that no one wants to talk about. It’s the reality that explains policing today and the fact that police are more heavily, intensively deployed in black neighborhoods, because that’s where the victims are.

Nobody wants to talk about that. We’ve been blaming the messenger for the past 50 years saying, “Police are in black neighborhoods more, it must be because they’re racist.” No, the reason that they’re in black neighborhoods is because that’s where the crime is happening. We blame the messenger rather than looking at the underlying problem.

Mr. Jekielek:

Two things, okay? The first one is, why is this argument not completely crazy? You said that earlier. I really want to hear that. But the second thing is, you could also make the case that this is precisely this reality that you described; this incredibly high level of crime in inner city, predominantly black communities is a consequence of racism. So, these two things. Maybe the first one, why is it not completely crazy to say that this is racist?

Ms. Mac Donald:

Let’s just imagine a police department. And again, this is not resembling any police department I know, but we can imagine one that is reinforcing the idea somehow, or maybe even having this be one of the favorite stories of the anti-police activist.

“Forget what you learned in the academy, kid. Now I’m going to teach you the ropes.” You’re driving around with a white, bigoted police trainer sergeant, and he’s telling you, “All these blacks are violent, they’re all criminals. The only way you can get them to obey is by roughing them up.”

“Everybody in this community is a so-called douchebag,” which is one of the police terms, “and the only thing they understand is force.” Again, this is a grotesque caricature, and I’m not saying that there’s police violence, but one could imagine a police culture that is completely unsympathetic to blacks and has no sense of their humanity.

And for black officers, this is what their narrative is. Black officers, in order to fit into the culture, have to absorb those attitudes. So, they identify with their white peers and therefore see any black suspect as beneath humanity. Or possibly, they want to show that they’re one of the guys. Again, I’m not saying that’s the case, but it’s not completely crazy.

And as far as why racism doesn’t explain crime in black communities, in one sense, I don’t care what the explanation is, that’s a separate discussion. The fact of the matter is right now, the police are not going to decide to police or not police based on whether the crime is based on racism. They have to be there to fulfill their duty and obligation to protect lives. And the reason they’re in black neighborhoods is to save black lives.

There is no government agency, and I would say not many private agencies, certainly not the civil rights and the Black Lives Matter activists, that care about black lives more than the police. The only people who care are the police. Al Sharpton and Benjamin Crump, this civil rights attorney who’s now representing the Tyre Nichols family, show up at every police shooting of a black man.

They went to Minneapolis at the one-year anniversary of the George Floyd’s death to commemorate George Floyd, who is sadly our current version of a civil rights hero. This man was a criminal. He had just committed a crime. He had a long history of crime. He’s not somebody for young people to venerate. But today, our civil rights heroes are almost exclusively criminals who have been shot by cops. That’s a sad statement about our current state of the civil rights movement.

But in any case, there’s Sharpton and Crump showing up in Minneapolis. At that moment in north Minneapolis in a hospital were two children, two black children, a nine-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy who had both been recently shot in the head in drive-by shootings by black criminals. The boys’ skull had to be removed. He’s going to be paralyzed for life. The nine-year-old girl was shot in the head; she died several days later. And a few days after that another black child was shot fatally.

As to the broader question; does racism cause crime? No it doesn’t. I don’t believe so. It’s not racism that makes these kids go out and start spraying bullets recklessly across sidewalks because they’re hoping to take out their gang enemies, and instead are shooting young children in their parents’ cars, or on their front porches, or coming out of stores. That’s not racism. It’s a total failure of self-control and respect for life.

It’s also definitely not poverty. The Left’s favorite explanation for the post-George Floyd crime surge that we had, which was a 29 per cent increase in homicides over one year, which is unprecedented in American history, is that it was the pandemic and everybody was suffering and they couldn’t put bread on the table. Again, it’s not the inability to put bread on the table that causes you to start shooting your gang enemies. It is a civilizational breakdown.

These kids all have $1000 smartphones, and social media is the police’s best friend. They’re all throwing their gang videos on Instagram that they took with their smartphones. And so, they’re throwing their gang signals, they’re showing their cash and their guns, and this helps the police a lot. But it’s neither poverty nor is it racism.

Mr. Jekielek:

The point is that it’s almost become a cultural phenomenon. Is that what you are saying?

Ms. Mac Donald:

It’s a cultural breakdown and a cultural phenomenon, absolutely. The retaliatory shootings are just standard. And my God, we turn our eyes away from the inner city pathologies. Listen to rap music. We’ve already heard this. Rap music has been telling us about this culture for the last 30 to 40 years.

It is the misogyny, the antisemitism, the violence, and the kill-cop, anti-snitching ethic. It’s a culture that celebrates crime and violence, but America turns its eyes away because it’s so disturbing a reality. And instead, you have these mainstream institutions blaming themselves for phantom racism.

Mr. Jekielek:

You know, one argument that has been growing in my mind over time is that this in itself is a kind of weird, patronizing racism where the basically white elite society tells itself, “Well, you’re not quite up to taking control of your life, so we’ll let you do this.” I find that really troubling.

Ms. Mac Donald:

Yes. We have heard this from George W. Bush, “The soft bigotry of low expectations. We’re going to tear down standards.” That is what my next book is about, about disparate impact and when race trumps merit. We tear down any standard that has a disparate impact on blacks rather than saying, “How about you meet the standards?”

We’re getting rid of LSATs, and we’re getting rid of medical school admissions tests. We’re getting rid of gifted and talented programs. In criminal law we’re getting rid of behavioral standards, because if you enforce the law it will have a disparate impact on blacks. That’s why we have more blacks in prison than is represented by their population ratios.

We’re not saying, “How about you do what other discriminated against groups did, like Jews or Asians? Which is to not just meet the standards, but beat them and whoop everybody else’s ass.” It doesn’t help people to have lowered standards.

There’s a phenomenon that was written about by Stephen Carter, a Yale Law professor in the 1990s, who wrote a book called Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. He wrote about his worries, “Am I the best lawyer for this job or am I the best black lawyer?” Some people are self-aware enough about the ubiquity of racial preferences that is something that gnaws at them.

On the other hand I’ve spoken to young black students who feel this is completely their due. They understand that they’re admitted to colleges and graduate schools and professional schools at very, very lower standards than, above all, Asians. But it doesn’t seem to bother them too much. They think, “Well, it’s owed to me.” But it can create a sense of self-doubt. And frankly, it should.

I know that as a female, I undoubtedly have been the so-called beneficiary of gender quotas all my life. “We want you on a panel because we can’t have a manel.” A manel is the phrase for a panel that is predominantly male, and manels are totally toxic. Now, nobody would object to a fanel, which is an all-female panel.

I’ve been contacted by a producer for a conservative cable network that I’m not going to name, to come and talk about interest rates or something, which I know nothing about. And I said, “Is that because you need a female?” And she said, “Yes.” So, it’s a pernicious game that does nobody any good.

Mr. Jekielek:

I often rant about this idea, but there are all these self-help books out there, and all of them essentially say you need to take responsibility for yourself. Even if everything’s tough, even if it really is someone else’s fault, if you don’t take full responsibility, you’re not going to succeed. This thing has been repeated so, so many times.

Some of the people that preach this stuff say that to their kids and family and you can see it in their lives. But then when it comes to other people they have this very weird double standard that I don’t grasp.

Ms. Mac Donald:

Absolutely. It is just amazing. We have had for the last 50 or 60 years an excuse conveyor belt or factory that comes up with one excuse after another for inner city pathologies. “We’re not spending enough,” or the usual blanket explanation of racism, which is non-falsifiable and is brought in for anything. It’s an absolute refusal to say, “You are responsible for yourself.”

And the worst in that is fathers. The norm in the inner city now is out of wedlock child-rearing. There’s not an expectation that males and boys are going to take responsibility for their children. It’s the norm that you impregnate females serially, and you go on and you have many different children by different females, and that’s not viewed as a massive breaching of a taboo.

If you never learn responsibility for your children it’s hard to have any sense of responsibility for anything else, because that’s the primary one. But instead, not only is the community not demanding responsibility, but the outside world is not as well. They have written fathers out of the picture, and it’s always, “Oh, we’re not spending enough on welfare programs.”

I’ve been reading a lot about civil rights history and I have to say, I was just reminded of how truly abysmal America’s treatment of blacks always was; gratuitously cruel, gratuitously nasty, and humiliating. It breaks my heart. But with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act you could say that phase of civil rights agitation had reached some kind of logical conclusion.

Things were not great, but at that point it would’ve been great if Booker T. Washington could have been resurrected to say, “All right, we’ve torn down most of the legal barricades. Now is the time to start cultivating our garden and work on personal responsibility, economic autonomy—those bourgeois habits of showing up at a job, being on time, respecting your boss, and monitoring your kids’ homework.”

Instead, the movement, including Martin Luther King, said, “Okay, we’ve got to find new things to be activists about, whether it’s the Vietnam War, or the war on poverty.” Where it’s been pointed out that other groups have focused on economic advancement, blacks have always chosen the political route. At some point that became not particularly helpful. It would have been much better to focus on cultivating social capital rather than political capital.

Mr. Jekielek:

A couple of quick thoughts. I always think back to Shelby Steele’s work about white guilt playing a critical role. The other thing is I’ve been thinking a lot about technocracy, for a whole series of reasons that you might imagine. If you’re someone that’s a functionary and you’re dealing with a spreadsheet, it might not matter to you.

You’re not thinking about individual people, and you’re not thinking about their success or failure in particular. You’re just thinking that you need to have your spreadsheet read a particular way. It could be just as easy to bring everyone down to a certain level. It really doesn’t matter what method you use, and it’s certainly a lot easier to equalize things across the bottom, than it is to lift everybody up.

I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about this, the idea of this burgeoning bureaucracy and spreadsheets and how much this may be playing a kind of a terrible role in society?

Ms. Mac Donald:

Whatever your metaphor is, it is definitely what’s going on. We have decided that we would rather not cultivate our top math talent, if that produces racial disparities. At this point the gifted and talented programs are way disproportionately Asian, and they’re being dismantled. California has this insane math curriculum that’s all about equity. It’s all about avoiding disparate impact and hoping that we can narrow those achievement gaps between blacks and Hispanics on the one hand, and whites and Asians on the other.

We’re going to defer the teaching of algebra in the hope that if we defer it, blacks and Hispanics will have caught up by then. But then you have less time for the other subsequent math courses across the country. Algebra and calculus is being replaced by this new phony math course called data science, which is basically just reading graphs.

They say, “They don’t really need math, but they need to do data science, because that’s what their work is going to be built around.” But it’s completely watered down. It’s really just reading an XY axis graph. It’s certainly not regression analysis or serious statistics.

Absolutely, this country, because of its understandable white guilt, has decided it would rather lower everybody to the low level than raise it up. And China, for all its problems, and we shouldn’t romanticize it, because obviously its COVID policies were beyond insane, but they are finding their top math talent and throwing everything they’ve got at it to make sure that those gifted and talented students succeed.

There are differences in math ability, sorry. This is not merely some sort of cultural construct. Some people are better at math than others, get over it. China finds those students and puts them in highly accelerated, resource-rich environments to make sure that those are the nanotechnologists and physicists of the future that will destroy America’s military advantage.

Mr. Jekielek:

They learned that from the U.S. in the first place, as far as I know. It’s just that we’ve forgotten it.

Ms. Mac Donald: