The description of the mother of Freddie Gray by one news outlet underscores the ways in which the mainstream media use their power and influence to construct negative images of Black people.
Far too often in the media, Black people are criminalized, demonized and denigrated in full view, without shame and right before our eyes. The consequences of such behavior are serious and certain, with more negative images of Black people that only serve to fuel racist public perceptions of Black people, and justify color-coded criminal justice policies that lead to more imprisoned and dead Black men. In other words, if Black people are criminals, they deserve whatever they got, and deserve whatever is coming to them in the future.
In the latest example, CNN had the following to say of Gloria Darden, the mother of Freddie Gray, a Black man who lost his life due to a severed spine while in police custody earlier this year:
The April 19 death of Freddie Gray, the son of an illiterate heroin addict, made him a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police. His name is now invoked with those of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; Eric Garner in New York; and other black men who died during encounters with white police officers. In Gray’s case, three of the officers charged are white; three black.
Gray’s mother is characterized as illiterate and a heroin addict has absolutely no relevance to her son’s death or the circumstances related to his killing. Rather, the characterization–and character assassination, for that matter—serves one purpose, which is to discount her own life, and by extension, that of her son. Since she is an addict engaging in illicit activity, the reasoning goes, we need not concern ourselves with what she is experiencing with the grief of her son, the psychic pain and suffering, and her suicide attempt. And if she can’t read or write, she is irrelevant and not worth our time, so they would say.
Although the network later removed the description on the grounds it was out of context, the damage had been done. But this latest episode represents a much larger problem, a widespread pattern of abuse against Black lives and Black bodies.
For example, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Geraldo Rivera said the following while appearing on Fox & Friends: “You dress like a thug, people are going to treat you like a thug.”
As Media Matters pointed out, the rightwing media portrayed the slain Martin as a Black thug who deserved to die, publishing from his Twitter account and posting fake photos portraying the dead boy as a thug and a gangster.
When Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the New York Times said that Brown “was no angel.” Meanwhile, as Sean McElwee at Demos noticed, the newspaper had described terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 people and injured hundreds in 1995 as “an easygoing young man, perhaps, but also one yearning for adventure, for faraway places and a life more exotic than his drowsy hometown had to offer.”
— Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee) August 25, 2014
Further, many networks, including ABC’s Good Morning America, Fox News, CNN and the Associated Press, trivialized the brutal death of Jordan Davis, characterizing his shooting death at the hands of a white man as a “loud music trial,” as Think Progress reported.
And when a young Black woman named Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas jail cell following an arrest after a traffic stop, former NYPD detective Harry Houck justified her death. Houck said Bland “was arrogant from the very beginning” and should have complied with the officer.
“Even if [the officer] de-escalated that whole situation,” Houck claimed, “she would have kept coming at that officer the way she did.” He added, “She just wanted to be uncooperative. She had a problem with the officer, she had a problem with being stopped, she didn’t like the fact that she was being stopped. Her whole arrogant attitude.”
Contrast this with the news reports of Sarah Furry, the 19-year old daughter of a DEA agent who was arrested for being a drug kingpin. Yet, despite the weight of the crimes, Furry was called “adorable” by the media. Because this is how white privilege works. And so, to say that unarmed Black innocents are held to a higher standard than white terrorists, mass murderers and drug kingpins is an understatement.
The consequences of the criminalization of Blackness in the media is serious business. According to Media Matters, one study last year found that four major New York City television stations gave disproportionate coverage to crime stories involving Black suspects. Stories involving African-Americans suspected of committing murder, theft, and assault were reported at a “notably higher rate” than the rate at which Blacks have been arrested for such crimes in that city, as much as nearly 30 percentage points higher.
In addition, a report from the Sentencing Project, called “Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies,” found that, “many media outlets reinforce the public’s racial misconceptions about crime by presenting African Americans and Latinos differently than whites — both quantitatively and qualitatively.” According to the report, television news shows and newspapers over-represent people of color as crime suspects and whites as victims.
“Black and Latino suspects are also more likely than whites to be presented in a non-individualized and threatening way – unnamed and in police custody,” the report added, also concluding that media coverage undermines white Americans’ potential for empathy towards racial minorities.
The report also found that whites are more punitive than people of color, and misjudge the amount of crime committed by Blacks and Latinos. Further, racial perceptions of crime distort the justice system, as whites who more closely associate crime with Black and Latino people tend to favor of punitive policies. One study in Los Angeles found that while Blacks made up 21 percent of those arrested in that city, they represented 37 percent of the suspects covered in news stories. Meanwhile, another study found that while whites were 13 percent of homicide victims, they were 43 percent of victims on the local news. In addition, only 10 percent of white crime victims were victimized by Blacks but such cases made up 42 percent of cases on the news. Black and Latino suspects are typically shown in more menacing and threatening situations, such as mugshots or in police custody.
Remember what Malcolm X said?
The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make a criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal. This is the press, an irresponsible press. If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.