Why mass media’s fixation on respectability is killing Black and Brown people
Jordan Edwards, 15, was killed on Saturday night while riding in a car with friends. The teenager was unarmed and was not suspected of any crime. Yet, police authorities in Balch Springs, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, fired into the vehicle anyway. They struck Edwards in the head, killing him.
It is no question that Edwards’s death is a tragedy. That much can be deduced without any additional information about his life or the conditions of his death.
However, rather than let that fact stand on its own, the New York Times went to great lengths to make sure the public knew that he was also a high academic acheiver, a “popular athlete”, and a likable person. This is the same publication that called Michael Brown – who was brutally slain by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014 for jaywalking – “no angel.”
These types of identifiers suggest that some dead Black people are more worthy of concern and mourning than others. Not only that, it places greater value on those Black people who – while living – comport with white supremacist notions of respectability while completely disregarding the unjust and highly racialized motives behind their deaths.
Mainstream media and Black Lives Matter
It is important to note that this process of post-humously checking the backgrounds of slain Black people has been used a number of times. Media outlets highlighted speculations that Trayvon Martin may have smoked weed at some point, calling him a ‘thug‘. Police officers described Sandra Bland as “arrogant” because she wouldn’t allow them to unlawfully harass her. When police murdered Miriam Carey – in front of her baby daughter, they called her “mentally unstable.” This was an attempt to justify her death. Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by Officer Michael Slager, was most notably described in terms of his bench warrant for child support, rather than the fact that he was unarmed and running away when he was murdered.
These efforts to evaluate and confirm the value of Black life – even in death – is a guiding mechanism of conditional citizenship. This logic insinuates that Black lives are to be valued if and only if they are respectable. It limits Black citizenship to subjective judgements of socially acceptable behavior rather than the guaranteed statutes of the US Constitution.
Issues like these are precisely why Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. According to Garza, it began “after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed.” The declaration that Black Lives Matter is meant to disrupt these narratives. It pushes back against the belief that Black life is important only when deemed perfect and wholesome.
Likewise, the media’s obsession with the behaviors and attitudes of Black people before their deaths is at the root of campaigns like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, an ongoing social media conversation which encourages media outlets to use images that reflect the fullness of blackness rather than focus on stereotypes.
Understanding that Brown Lives Matter
But this phenomenon is not limited to Black people. Donald J. Trump’s recent “Immigrant Crime List” rests on the same logics. It promotes the idea that “tough on crime” policies – ones that often result in the untimely and unlawful deaths of Black and Brown people – are justified. Why? Because marginalized people are inherently bad. Legal frameworks like the crime list bolster support for strict immigration policies because they stoke fears that undocumented immigrants are fundamentally deviant people. People who, many believe, should be deported, jailed, or killed if necessary.
Clearly, there are policy implications for the public’s and mass media’s focus on doling out citizenship, mourning, and worth. Laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground“, New York’s “Stop and Frisk“, and Arizona’s SB 1070 “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” are the direct result of this sort of thinking. Sadly, those people on the margins often have their lives cut short for no other reason than existing in the United States.
Until the connections between media narratives, policy initiatives, and police and public actions on the ground are made plain, Black and Brown people in the United States will continue to be targeted by systems and institutions who deem them outside the boundaries of citizenship. Thus, being outside of those boundaries means that they are not seen as the rightful recipients of protection and preservation.
Instead, they will continue to face the unjust and unlawful eradication that plagues Black and Brown communities today.
Our lives matter. All of them. No matter if we are academic prodigies, middle-class service workers, previously incarcerated, jaywalking, frequent weed smokers, or whatever else. Our lives matter. There is no distinction. It’s time to recognize that fundamental truth.
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