In a recent post, Media Coverage of Black Shooting Victims (Part I), we considered how the media uses negative portrayals of black shooting victims to imply that police brutality against black victims is somehow justifiable. We explored how the news media’s use of mug shots or unflattering photos of the victims and its assassination of the victims’ characters send the dangerous message that the victims somehow deserved to be gunned down by the police officer (or vigilante citizen) who murdered them. As Part II of this issue, let’s expand on that topic and focus specifically on the news media’s frequent use of the word “thug” to describe black males. The news media’s characterization of black boys and men – even the boys and men who are victims of police brutality – as thugs is a poisonous way of supporting police brutality.
In just about every recent, unwarranted police shooting of a black man or boy, the law enforcement narrative has been the same: the victim appeared violent and threatening (often by “reaching into a waistband,” whatever that means), and the police-shooter was therefore reasonably fearful and legally justified in using deadly force. And yet, videos keep revealing that the police narrative is false and the victim was not acting violently or threateningly. We have Laquan McDonald rapidly walking away from the Chicago police. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun, threatening no one. John Crawford III was holding a BB gun that was for sale in a Walmart when he was gunned down in the aisle. And we have black man after black man shot simply for fleeing the police. One of the many galling aspects of all of this heart-wrenching violence is the way the news media buys into the false narrative and subtly perpetuates it by thugifying the victims.
Shaun King of the Daily Kos argues that the word thug is the new socially acceptable derogatory slur for black men, replacing the hateful slurs that the news media is no longer allowed to use. As King points out, white people are not called thugs by the news media – not serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, not Oklahoma City bombers Timonthy McVeigh or Terry Nichols, not Colorado theater shooter James Holmes. The Huffington Post notes that the recent Planned Parent shooter, Robert Dear (who is white) was described by the news media as a “gentle” rambling “loner” with a “troubled history.” In contrast, unarmed black shooting victim Trayvon Martin was dubbed a thug based on his Facebook pictures. Fox news host Geraldo Rivera justified the murder of 17-year-old Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was killed, saying, “You dress like a thug, people are going to treat you like a thug.” Police victims Freddie Gray and Michael Brown were also repeatedly referred to as thugs, as if calling them that justified their deaths. In that context, thug is a derogatory slur on par with the taboo slurs that the news media avoids.
So much of the extreme violence we are seeing is inextricably linked to race. Calling black victims thugs is a way of writing them off and saying that their lives did not matter. It is also a way of perpetuating the violent stereotypes and the fear of black men that fuels the knee-jerk violence. The recent victims are not thugs – they are men and boys, fathers and sons and brothers, cousins and friends. It’s time for our society to stop trying to cast them as other and simply acknowledge that they are fellow human beings.