From personal experience of observation, mainstream media coverage most often portrays people of color —specifically those of African descent—as criminal offenders, suspects of crime, or as having flawed character when identified as victims of crime. Their White counterparts, on the other hand, are commonly perceived as innocent bystanders, targeted victims, or mentally-ill offenders. The misrepresentation of Blacks stir feelings of fear and anxiety, while that of Whites attracts sympathy and genuine concern. Portrayals of these peoples can be deliberate and sometimes subtle, but due to the presence racial bias in the climate of today’s society, subtlety is just as powerful as that which is deliberate. Black males in particular have historically been seen and labeled as aggressive and deviant. These depictions are in some ways explicitly and other ways implicitly used as an alternative for societal mediated racism. Unlike earlier Black icons and figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, who were ridiculed while alive and then purged in death to be represented as valuably relevant to American history, Black males today are portrayed as thugs and criminals to outwardly justify their deaths while also dehumanizing them. Mainstream media criminalizes of Black male victims of gun violence and police brutality through misrepresentation.
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This essay will further expand on this idea of criminalization in several ways. First, it will discuss the labels that have been sociohistorically used to describe Black males in the United States. Next, it is important to relate the past icons of racial dehumanization to modern criminalization of “blackness” following Obama’s presidency. The semantics and imagery of media coverage can use things like behavior, physical appearance, and background as means to endorse criminalization. These also address both explicit cases of racism in addition to covert incidents like microaggressions. Furthermore, the essay analyzes two popular cases of Black males that received mass media coverage and how they were initially portrayed by media sources. Finally, the essay discusses the effects of media misrepresentation on the Black community and the rest of society, as well as the social and political responses to the criminalization of thee victims.
NARRATIVE OF BLACK MALE IMAGE
The public image of the Black male emerged prominently in the early twentieth century, as a sense of panic amongst society was fortified by the depictions of Black men as dangerous. In 1915 a film titled Birth of a Nation was premiered. The film portrays Black men as wild beasts or savages targeting White women. The Ku Klux Klan address their viciousness, being depicted as the valiant protagonists here to save the day. The message created by this film is a means of criminalizing Blackness. The criminalization of Blackness (Davis, 1998; Alexander, 2010; Muhammad, 2010) is the window of opportunity for White supremacy to use Black bodies as their excuse for all problems, real or fictional, personal or public. The presence of severe sentencing parameters within the prison system and the growth of the War on Drugs in the early twentieth century institutionally reinforced the concept Black criminality as violent and uncontrollable (Mauer, 2002). Initiatives such as these statistically expanded the American prison system by 700% (Pew States, 2007). During this time campaigns for “tough on crime” policy appeared as the slogan for politicians. For example, George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential race used a campaign tactic, well known as the “Willie Horton” advertisement. The ad shows the mug shot of the Black prisoner while a narrator speaks of his violent crimes as well as the opposing candidate, Michael Dukakis, and his opposition to the death penalty. While this explicitly illustrates a single Black man, the subliminal and bigger message is Willie Horton’s image became representative of all Blackness. Fictional savage became the real life thug through the process of criminalization. Images of the Black male as an aggressor stem from the social construction of race and carry us to the era of mass incarceration. “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites” (NAACP, n.d.). This inequality reveals the overrepresentation of Black men in U.S. prisons. The conversation has progressed toward criminal activity and community welfare. Refusal to acknowledge the sociohistorical link between Blackness and the lifestyle of a criminal disregards the substantial role that race plays in the portrayal and treatment of Black males .
Another example of Black males being depicted as brutal figures is the shot of NBA player LeBron James holding model Gisele Bündchen on the cover of Vogue magazine. James appears to be letting out a roar with a fear-provoking expression while he holds her in one arm. This picture has been frequently compared to the WWI propaganda titled, “Destroy this Mad Brute”, which depicts a wild ape holding a White woman (Shea, 2008). Images like these draw on historical racial stereotypes that support marginalization and criminalization of Black males. While analyzing the use overt racist language and depictions in American history, it is apparent that there has been a change in the climate of social intolerance to flagrant racism. This does not suggest that racist or discriminative behavior has ceased but instead dormant and reactivated through disguised “language, gestures, signs, and symbols to indicate difference” (Smiley & Fakunle, 2016). “Ghetto,” and “sketchy,” and “bad” are terms commonly used to refer to or speak of Black people without blatantly coming off as culturally intolerant. Deliberately styling one’s self in the fashion of Black stereotypes is an example of a physical gesture and image of racially prejudiced objectification.
With the exponential growth in the use of social media in the last decade, there has been an increase in the number events documented and shared on social networking sites (Yar, 2012; Smiley, 2015). Several of these events involve the killings of Black males by law enforcement. While some videos display the unsettling last seconds of victims in the midst of chaos, others show the gruesome seconds following the incident. These deaths and others have sparked moral panic and anger across communities seeking justice and accountability of law enforcement’s excessive force when dealing with Black people. News coverage of two victims in particular circulated images and details that promoted criminalization of their bodies in means to justify the brutality against them.
Eric Garner was as forty-three year old Black male killed by physical restraint involving an illegal choke hold by New York Police Department officers on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, New York. Garner’s representation in the media mostly featured descriptions regarding his body type and the crime he was committing when addressed by police. The points of him being a taller and larger individual along a number of preexistent health conditions, were among the first details of information articulated in the media:
The 350-pound man, about to be arrested on charges of illegally selling cigarettes, was arguing with the police. (Goldstein & Schweber, 2014)- New York Times
A 400-POUND asthmatic Staten Island dad died Thursday after a cop put him in a chokehold and other officers appeared to slam his head against the sidewalk, video of the incident shows. (Murray et. al, 2014)-Huffington Post
The use of Garner’s physical features regarding his behavior at the time of his death provokes the implications of criminality. Accounts emphasizing his past and lifestyle were used to further incriminate Garner as justification for the brutality conducted against him. Despite Garner’s known tendency to sell loose cigarettes ( illegal but not a felony according to New York law), the media used his prior actions as reason for the severity of police intervention without consideration for the severity of the offense:
The encounter between Mr. Garner and plainclothes officers, from the 120th Precinct, began after the officers accused Mr. Garner of illegally selling cigarettes, an accusation he was familiar with. He had been arrested more than 30 times, often accused of selling loose cigarettes bought outside the state, a common hustle designed to avoid state and city tobacco taxes. In March and again in May, he was arrested on charges of illegally selling cigarettes on the sidewalk. (Goldstein & Schweber, 2014)- New York Times
The pending cases, which have now been dismissed and sealed, included selling untaxed cigarettes, driving without a license, and possession of marijuana, said a law enforcement official. (Fox, 2014)- AM New York
Garner, who was black, died in July after being put in a chokehold by Pantaleo. Police had stopped the father of six on suspicion of selling untaxed “loose” cigarettes. Garner had been arrested previously for selling untaxed cigarettes, marijuana possession and false impersonation.. (Laughland et. al, 2014)- The Guardian
Tamir Rice was a twelve year old boy killed by two Cleveland Police Department officers on November 22, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. Media coverage of Rice’s death regarded inquiries of lifestyle and behavior. Nevertheless, the premise of microaggressions also held Rice’s mother accountable for playing a role in his death. The most disturbing detail of this case is the age of the victim and the debate that flooded the news was who was responsible. At first the city of Cleveland described Rice’s death as if he had it coming:
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The city of Cleveland’s response to a lawsuit filed by the family of Tamir Rice says the 12-year-old boy is to blame for his own death by police…The family’s suit filed in December said Tamir ‘suffered terror and fear’ at the hands of Loehmann [police officer] before his shooting death — claims the city says Tamir and his family are at fault for. It states Tamir’s death was “directly and proximately caused by their own acts. (Hensley, 2015)-New York Daily News
In papers filed in federal court Friday, the city said Tamir was responsible for his own death and said the injuries, losses and damages were “directly and proximately caused by the failure of [Tamir] to exercise due care to avoid injury.” (Muskal & Raab, 2015)- LA Times
These statements implicate that Rice failed to obey the officers’ commands, supporting claims that Rice exhibited deviant behavior and therefore must have been guilty of delinquency. This tactic of criminalization represents the victim in a light inaccurate of the character known by those close to him. The dehumanization of Black youth promotes a level of accountability that strips the vulnerability of childhood. This case in particular places responsibility on the victim rather than the offender.
As mainstream media representation of Black bodies has remained amenable to anti-Black structures use of body composition, negative, prior criminal sentences or offenses, and allegations of criminal behavior—it is important to recognize that aside from the audiences media platforms target, individual journalists do not need to be willfully prejudice. This essay is not to fault personal beliefs, but rather to identify how Whiteness and other forms of privilege allow media professionals and platforms to cover these incidents the way they do, without taking a step back to consider how their choice of words, images, and narratives are circulated. Stories contribute to the perception of a victim and can alter the perspective of how the victims is perceived.
Race is always a sensitive topic when talking about police-community relations, but it is an issue that has to be addressed through civil dialogue and action. Moral panic amongst the Black community and the concern for the safety Black males has reached the epitome of racial tension with law enforcement. They have to walk on egg shells and take extra precautions in order to not be susceptible to police brutality. Parents are protective of their sons, teachers are educating their students, wives are worrying for their husbands, sisters are nagging their brothers. The media does not publicize these stories as there is a collective effort to take measures within the community to prevent futures incidents from occurring. Criminalization through misrepresentation by the media conditions law enforcement to think it is acceptable to kill in the name of “self-defense,” or because they “feared for their life” in the encounter with a Black male. Where social and political activism is fighting against the use of this narrative to justify the killings of Black males, the media hinders efforts toward any progress.
The Black Lives Matter movement, along with its hashtag has become its own platform on social media. This unites people and organizations in solidarity against police brutality, excessive force by law enforcement, and racial profiling. Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement claim that equality refers to “all” lives and thus only saying “Black” lives is exclusive and racist. In actuality, these critics do not apprehend their own privilege nor are they aware of the historical and urgent need to focus on the reality that the Black community has faced and endured forms of brutality throughout America’s existence. It is important to recognize social movements and their usefulness in gaining equality.
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- Davis AY. Race and Criminalization: Black Americans and the Punishment Industry. In: Jones Joy., editor. The Angela Y Davis Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing; 1998. pp. 61–73.
- Fox A. Open cases dismissed against Eric Garner, Staten Island man who died in police custody. amNewYork. 2014 Jul 23; Retrieved from http://www.amny.com/news/eric-garner-staten-island-man-who-died-in-police-custody-has-open-cases-dismissed-1.8875188.
- Goldstein J, Schweber N. Man’s death after chokehold raises old issue for the police. The New York Times; 2014. Jul 19, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/nyregion/staten-island-man-dies-after-he-is-put-in-chokehold-during-arrest.html.
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- Murray K, Burke K, Marcius CR, Parascandola R, McCarron P, Hutchinson B. ‘I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe…’ Officers slam 400-lb. ‘illegal cig seller’ to sidewalk: Kin demand ‘justice’ after Staten Island death. New York Daily News. 2014 Jul 18;:10.
- Muskal M, Raab L. Cleveland blames Tamir Rice, 12, for his own death, then apologizes. LA Times. 2015 Mar 2; Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-tamir-rice-lawsuit-blame-cleveland-20150302-story.html.
- Pew Charitable Trusts. Public safety, public spending: Forecasting America’s prison population 2007-2011. Washington D.C: 2007.
- Shea D. Uncovered: Possible inspiration for controversial LeBron James Vogue cover. Huffington Post. 2008 Apr 5; Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/28/uncovered-possible-inspir_n_93944.html.
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- Yar M. Crime, media and the will-to-representation: Reconsidering relationships in the new media age. Crime Media Culture. 2012;8(3):245–260.
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