What does it mean when white police are convicted of killing blacks?
We’ll know the system is fair when we are no longer surprised
In her book White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960, Lisa Lindquist Dorr tells the story of Nannie Strayhorn, a black woman living in Jim Crow Richmond, Virginia. In October 1946, Strayhorn, a 32-year-old mother of two sons, argued with a male companion inside his car one evening after leaving a dance. She wanted him to take her home. He had other things in mind. As the two argued at about 2:45 a.m., two white male police officers, Carl Burleson, 27, and Leonard Davis, 43, came upon the scene. They told her to exit the vehicle and they would get her home.
A relieved Strayhorn hopped into the back seat of their ride. But instead of taking her home, they took her to a dead-end street where they took turns raping her. After the brutal crime, they drove to a location a short walk from her home and freed her.
Immediately upon returning home, Strayhorn disclosed to her brother that two white officers had sexually assaulted her. The next day, with her attorney Linwood Smith and her brother in tow, Strayhorn filed a complaint with the police chief against the two officers. Burleson and Davis were arrested, and the following January, all-white juries convicted both of them in separate trials after an hour of deliberations.
This incident establishes that a racist system can allow for anti-racist actions, sometimes. Even in the segregated South, white police officers did sporadically face conviction for crimes against black people. No one could reasonably argue that Virginia in 1946 stood as a shining beacon of racial fairness. The system allowed Strayhorn to taste justice only because doing so didn’t undermine white supremacy.
America occasionally extends justice to black people who are victims of police brutality because extending that justice in a few instances keeps intact the racially oppressive nature of the system. In fact, granting infrequent justice enables stewards of the system to exalt its supposed impartiality. The black population of Richmond who complained of police barbarism could be silenced with the story of Nannie Strayhorn. The stewards of the system could say, “We did right by her because she was an actual victim. That other claims of brutality went unatoned only proves that nothing really happened.”
On Oct. 6, a Chicago jury convicted Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, of second-degree murder. His victim, Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old high school student, and his family received the justice that routinely evades black people complaining of abuse by white police officers. This conviction, along with that of Roy D. Oliver II, a Texas police officer convicted in August of murdering Jordan Edwards, 15, might signal, to some, that the work of social movements like Black Lives Matter has bent the criminal justice system in a fairer direction.
After I learned of the Van Dyke conviction, I blocked from entering my mind thoughts that perhaps the criminal justice system is improving. Instead, I remembered a black woman most had never heard of, a black woman whose bravery astonishes me, a black woman long since dead of brain cancer. I remembered Nannie Strayhorn.
The foreman standing up and announcing, “Guilty” in Oliver’s trial for the killing of Edwards surprised us. The forewoman standing up and announcing, “Guilty” in Van Dyke’s trial for the killing of Laquan McDonald surprised us. The foremen standing up and announcing, “Guilty” in the trials of Burleson and Davis surprised Richmond’s black community decades ago.
We’ll know that the system is fair when we are no longer surprised. We’ll know that the system is fair when we expect fairness. We’ll know the system is fair when officers believe they can’t cry, “I feared for my life” and get away with killing black people.
We aren’t there yet. We must forge ahead. The work remains undone.