Our country routinely attributes Black people’s crimes and passions to some sort of savagery that is rooted in our race, while Whites exhibiting the same disruptive, illegal or socially inappropriate actions are cast aside as redeemable mistakes or simply not guilty in the first place.
The American legal system is based on the idea that a citizen who is culpable of wrongdoing should be regarded as such, whether they are to face some sort of corrective treatment or a form of punishment. But people who are responsible for informing the public of these crimes or are granted the right to decide who is punishable versus those who aren’t constantly fail to see how race colors our perceptions of people’s actions—specifically with the reasoning, context and severity of their actions.
Where was the national outrage last weekend over the 1,500 rioting university students in Kentucky after a basketball game? Photos and videos of the event depict scores of White kids starting fires in the streets surrounding the stadium as police in tactical gear stood on the sidelines watching people “mingle,” pointing guns and occasionally entering the crowd to remove any “disobedient” fans. Thirt-one people were arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct and no one has a clear explanation as to why the riot started in the first place (aside from one of the teams losing by five points. Shocker). People had plenty of negative things to say about the handful of Black girls having a brutal cat fight at a fast food restaurant, but hardly anything about the public event of debauchery and destruction that was the Kentucky basketball brawl.
Similarly, White conservatives with an affinity for FOX, spewing propaganda and racist commentary had no hesitation in suggesting that Ferguson protesters are “thugs” who are guilty of Black-on-Black crime and of bringing death and violence unto themselves. There were hardly any comments when dozens of people were sent to the hospital after sustaining injuries during the Keene Pumpkin Riot in New Hampshire last fall. How is it that thousands of White students can show out and cause violence in their path only to walk away with a slap on the wrist while a single Black one can be brutally beaten in front of their classmates by local law enforcement simply for trying to use a fake ID at a bar? Martese Johnson’s face covered in blood and screaming in pain is pressed into my brain almost a month after his story hit the Internet.
Two crime reports that went viral last week are worth noting. Local Iowa newspaper, the Gazette, published two virtually identical stories of burglaries by White and Black men. The source of the controversy was that while one story describing a group of three White college students from the University of Iowa used their college yearbook photos, the other story describing four Black men used their mugshots. In other words, while one suggested that a group of White men were just some carefree students that had gotten their hands dirty while out of class, the other report implied that the Black men were career criminals already found guilty of the crime.
The non-apology put out by the news outlet was quite the disappointment, arguing that the students’ mugshots weren’t available until after the story was published. The only problem with their statement was that the students’ mugshots were available to be put into the article well before everyone else picked up on the comparison.
If people are ever going to begin to understand the pervasiveness and the effect that racism has on the way people of color are perceived, they have to pay closer attention to how our stories are told. We have to remain vigilant when our stories aren’t given the same kind of respect, consideration and thorough, transparent investigation as those of our White counterparts. It’s obvious that until stories like those of Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin come to an end, we have no other choice.