Last week, the death of a police officer in Memphis made national news. According to authorities, Sean Bolton is the eighteenth police officer shot killed in the line of duty this year. In a statement provided by the Memphis Police Department, Bolton was shot multiple times after approaching a car that was illegally parked and “apparently interrupted some sort of drug transaction.”
Most officer fatalities are the result of traffic accidents and do not garner national attention the way this story has. Furthermore, FBI data shows that police officers killed in the line of duty are overwhelmingly white, as are the offenders responsible for their deaths. Essentially, the murder of police officers can be classified as a white-on-white crime. Yet, the media does not present it as such, nor as a symptom as some social cancer of white hatred of law enforcement. In fact the opposite is true, the media is more likely to capture sound bites of white Americans voicing their support of law enforcement.
The suspect in the case of Sean Bolton is an African American male. Tremaine Wilbourn, 29, turned himself in without incident and is being held on $9 million bail.
Even though the number of police officers killed in the line of duty by civilians is drastically low compared to the number of civilians killed by police officers, and white police officers are more likely to be killed by white offenders, one cannot overlook media’s zealous willingness to exploit the racial angel of this story in a manner that seeks to fracture the the Black Lives Matter movement.
Stereotypes concerning African Americans in the media are most often tied to Cultivation Theory, a social theory that stipulates people’s social reality is largely defined by their long-term exposure to certain types of media, particularly television. The media, since its inception, has upheld unflattering, racialized characteristics as true depictions of Black life. Constant onslaught of these images on television and in other mediums has cultivated the notion of a criminal pathology specific to African American people. In this respect, the media has endorsed white supremacy in attributing violence to Blackness.
Researchers note that the media forces people to think about race in the schema of white supremacy where stereotypes are important and play into “the fears white people have regarding crime and the relative guilt of African Americans, even when they are the victims of crime, specifically when killed at the hands of police officers and unarmed.” Since most people get their information from the media, the portrayal of an African American perpetrator harming a white victim is a more potent news story because it is a blaring reminder that in America, Blackness is synonymous with criminal behavior.
Regardless of how “fair and balanced” a media conglomerate claims to be, there are no universal standards, codes or rules by which they are governed or obligated to report the news. Therefore, even when reporting the truth, images chosen to illustrate “facts” can sometimes present a counter-narrative to the story being told. This is most often the case when suspects are white.
According to a March 2015 Boing Boing article, media outlets opt for family snapshots and yearbook photos over mugshots of white suspects, but opt for mugshots of Black suspects making “the Black men already look guilty while the white men look clean-cut even though both groups were arrested for the same crime.”
After Dylann Roof killed nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, almost immediately stories surfaced about how he was “troubled” but a “good kid.” It would be a few days before articles memorializing the victims of his hatred and violence would surface. When the suspect is Black, no one ever mentions their past, unless it can be tied to criminal behavior— they are inherently bad, there is no “good kid,” just one who would have eventually turned bad anyway.
The same holds true for those African Americans who are killed by police officers. Rather than being treated as victims whose lives were taken needlessly, the media—often with the help of law enforcement—rushes to sully the reputation of the victim and somehow morph them into a criminal. Whether it be the “magical marijuana” claim or a rumor that their grandfather’s third cousin on their mother’s side may have been guilty of assaulting a white woman in 1896. It happened in 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi and it continues to happen today.
The media won’t address the incredulous number of deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement in this manner, because in the American psyche, the punishable offense that justifies each death is the victim’s Blackness. It is the very thing that makes police officers think even when the events are caught on camera. They can justify their actions, and/or resort to lying because the victim’s Blackness is that one thing they know they do not have to dispute. They know Blackness, in the public’s eye, already renders victims responsible for their own demise. This is the systematic destruction of Blackness and they know the mainstream media has decided it is not newsworthy.