Riffing off an article by Gawker columnist Cord Jefferson yesterday, Jefferson and MSNBC host Chris Hayes satirized the right’s concern with “black on black …
Just in case this segment left you scratching your head, let’s break down what it all means. This brilliantly scathing piece was meant to show the hypocrisy in how news media talks criminal behavior in black and white communities. And the takeaway is this:
Our media is incredibly biased when it comes to covering crime involving people of color.
How do we know? Let’s look at three themes that play out over and over again.
1. Victim-shaming vs. killer sympathy
2014 was full of protests and demonstrations in response to unarmed black men, women, and children killed by the police without consequence. And while these stories were all over the news, too many focused on blaming the victims for previous unrelated criminal behavior.
- When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in November 2014, a Cleveland news site ran the story “Tamir Rice’s father has history of domestic violence” as if his father’s past behavior was somehow relevant.
- In April 2015, an unarmed Walter Scott was shot six times in the back by a South Carolina police officer. Although the incident was captured on film and the officer was charged with murder, NBC News ran a story following the incident titled: “Walter Scott Had Bench Warrant for His Arrest, Court Documents Show.”
- And after a police officer shot and killed unarmed John Crawford in August 2014 in response to a bad tip from a Walmart customer, multiple outlets ran headlines mentioning that Crawford had THC in his system.
All three of these incidents were captured on camera and suggest gross police misconduct, yet the victims in these cases were essentially put on trial.
Meanwhile, the news media is notorious for sympathetically portraying white men and women suspected of crimes (including murder). Take James Eagan Holmes. He was responsible for the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, shooting that left 12 people dead and many more injured — and was noted as a “brilliant science student.”
Elliot Rodger, who killed six people plus himself and injured 14 others in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014, was described as “soft-spoken, polite, a gentleman.”
See the difference?
2. Coverage of unruly crowds
Riots are never a good thing. But here, too, the media uses a certain spin when the crowd is white.
When riots broke out after the 2011 Stanley Cup, you’d be hard-pressed to find any media blaming “white culture” for the actions of a few hundred rowdy sports fans.
This contrasts how news media and police responded when a handful of people began damaging property during 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and April 2015 protests in Baltimore over growing frustrating with police brutality. Not only did police show up to the Ferguson and Baltimore protests in full riot gear with military equipment and tear gas, news media continued to demonize protesters and lay the blame on the black community instead of addressing the root of their growing frustrations.
Your media guide to the differences between #Ferguson and #pumpkinfest pic.twitter.com/XfRjlhgei0
— Matt Weinecke (@MattTW) October 19, 2014
Violence of any kind is wrong. But there’s a serious problem when white students rioting after the annual Pumpkin Festival are described as “rowdy” and “unruly” but black protesters rioting in response to police brutality are portrayed as “violent thugs.”
3. Blaming black culture
Perhaps the difference in language and coverage is the perception, a la Bill O’Reilly, that “black culture” feeds and supports criminal behavior more than other cultures.
News flash: “Black culture” doesn’t cause crime. Period.
Now let’s have a quick history lesson.
It’s true, African-Americans do make up a disproportionate amount of the U.S. prison population.
“Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.”
— NAACP, Criminal Justice Fact Sheet
While this is no doubt upsetting, it’d be foolish to assume based on the numbers alone that black and Hispanic people are more predisposed to crime instead of examining the how and why that so many end up in prison.
It’s no secret that crime tends to be more prevalent in impoverished communities. It would be nice to think that everyone has equal access to jobs, housing and education, but the reality is many people of color end up in impoverished communities with poorly funded schools as a result of systemic racism.
Throughout history, black people in the United States have been shut out of communities with good schools and jobs — starting in the 1800s with Jim Crow laws that prohibited renting property to black families, all the way up to the 1960s when the Federal Housing Committee instituted a policy that denied home loans to African-Americans and even people who lived near African-Americans (known as “redlining”).
Combine all those elements with limited job opportunities in communities of color (a common consequence of poorly funded schools) and it’s no wonder many turn to crime as a means of support.
We haven’t even begun to address stiffer prison sentences, racial profiling, and police aggression that are all too prevalent in communities of color! So yeah, it’s way complicated.
Chris Hayes’ spoof on “white culture” shines a spotlight on our media’s blatant hypocrisy.
Before I continue singing Hayes’ praises (whoa, that rhymed!), it’s important to acknowledge that there have been tons of black activists and scholars who’ve pointed out our media’s hypocrisy long before this segment. But I’m always happy when someone uses their platform — and, more importantly, their privilege — to talk about inequality. So cheers to Chris Hayes for this brilliant spoof!
The point is, there’s no logical reason for our media to frame white suspects and criminals sympathetically and demonize black victims and suspects. It’s not just painfully unfair, it’s a gross display of racial bias.