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Racism 101: When the “thug” is white, media slants coverage
By now, you’ve likely heard about the shootout between two OMGs (outlaw motorcycle gangs) — Bandidos and Cossacks — that took place last Sunday at Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, TX leaving 9 dead, 18 injured and 170 arrested. Unlike other recent, high profiled, police-related stories — Baltimore, Ferguson, Chicago, etc. –, the perpetrators in this south central city are white.
After the news broke, social media pounced, churning out memes filled with messages addressed to some obvious biases in how some news outlets covered the violence of a white-on-white crime.
In effect, the media was taken to school, and the course was racism 101. Discomforting as it may feel for whites to be drug over White supremacist coals, in a raw, unflinching conversation about American race relations, it is — I can assure — much worst being shot eight, nine, or more times with hands up, or dragged screaming , with an injured spine, off a sidewalk curb, and thrown into the back of a police vehicle.
It is much worst, that is, to be, as Du Bois put it, “a problem.”
Whiteness-as-property (pdf) was on full display in Waco. Noticeably absent in just about every mainstream report on the white homicide (doesn’t sound so awkward when you say it) which unfolded last weekend were all the stock tropes we’d grown accustomed to regarding police-citizen relations — riot gear, tear gas, tanks, hand-cuffed bodies face down on the ground, pathologizing, police department cover ups, etc., etc.
It’s fair to ask why, and it’s equally fair, at least for the moment, to answer with additional questions. Such as:
Should we assume, based on recent events, that the militarized method of policing is reserved specifically for black people? Should we too assume that when the “thug” is white, the media deliberately slants its coverage?
The dramatic shift in the terminology used to depict white homicide in Waco would sure suggest so. Language, the external form of cognition, the brain objectified, reveals how the human mind organizes and processes the details of the world. While the media unloaded the full brunt of its linguistic vitriol on Baltimore and Ferguson, it adopted a more tamed approach when discussing Waco, handling this bloodbath with, as one writer puts it, “velvet gloves.”
Hence a riot became a “brawl”; looting became “organized crime”; thugs became a “biker’s club.”
The message: certain terms and the connotations associated with them, are the sole preserve of Blacks; others, Whites. Looting is a black thing; organized crime, a White.
If that ain’t slanted coverage, I don’t know what is.
But this isn’t just about phraseology, saying nicer things about one group of people relative to another. Cognition is also a factor. And the thinking here amounts to this: reification of Whiteness is impossible without the criminalization of Blackness. Both are two sides of the same psychological coin.
In the white imagination, just as white-on-white crime is merely a deviation from the norm, that is, essentially law-abiding whites, violence involving Blacks, even that elicited from without through engaging in peaceful protest, confirm natural bestiality.
W. E. B. Du Bois observed this over a century ago (The Souls of White Folk), when he wrote:
“Murder may swagger, theft may rule and prostitution flourish, and the nation gives but spasmodic, intermittent and lukewarm attention. But let the murderer be black or the thief brown or the violator of womanhood have but a drop of Negro blood, and the righteousness of the indignation sweeps the world. Nor would this fact make the indignation less justifiable did not we all know that it was blackness that was condemned, and not crime.”
The crime, always, is blackness itself.
Adding weight to this awful truth was the photo of the aftermath of the Waco tragedy (See the image leading this article), making the meme rounds on social media, showing a blase, relaxed relationship between police and arrested bikers.
Hell, even the damn dogs in Waco were treated with respect:
The media bias didn’t stop here. CNN, surprise-surprise, went Olivia Pope on folks, and somehow managed to use this outbreak of white-on-white crime — which, as Julia Craven makes clear, is a problem of epidemic proportions — as yet another opportunity to victim-blame, to point out how much the blame of “justifiable homicide” and racial profiling against Blacks can, should, and must be traced back to, who else, Blacks.
Evidenced how, you wonder? CNN guest ex-NYPD officer Harry Houck has the answer.
“I think the word was owned by rappers,” he continued. “They started coming out with songs and calling themselves thugs, and I think that’s how this whole thing started, with the black community and the young men calling themselves thugs. Alright? And I think that’s how that all started.”
That’s right. Because the term “thug” — historically, etymologically, and all — originated with rappers.
Worst still: the Houck-tirade, which, as you saw, piqued the ire of Charles Blow, seems to have been nothing more than a prelude to what, in his own mind, must have struck him as a profound recommendation to black folk: “Move on.” How do you “move on”? Simple: forget it.
Slavery. Jim Crow. The Tulsa Riot. Ghettoization. Predatory lending. None of it happened. Or, the fact that it happened shouldn’t matter anymore. The sad truth is that this is about as much substance as we’re going to get from the Colorblind School. Anyone hoping for more is SOL.
Interestingly enough, what Houck did not address is why the only biker-mug shot featured on any news station so far is of a black man.
I guess we should just move on, forget about that as well.
Clearly we have every reason to assume that when “thugs” are white, mainstream media wraps them in a protective, in-group-bubble. Witnessing it has been nothing short of a travesty.
Yet, as I follow the response on social media, the cries challenging the media distortions here raised, I feel encouraged. We are living in a period where there will always be a backlash, for #BlackLivesMatter, The Black Youth Project, and other social justice movements across the nation are making clear to world our expectations and demands, in this era of surging revolution.
We expect and demand the same delicate understanding which has been everywhere applied in the coverage of Waco, everywhere executed in cases of white-on-white crimes in general.
We expect and demand that the dignity, intellectual and emotional self-awareness, and unforgettable social history of black Americans be borne firmly in mind when reporting police altercations involving unarmed and armed black citizens.
That may be asking too much of the White American imagination. It may be too tall a feat for the White-privileged ego to handle. But, after all, friends always charge me with being an ever-optimist. Why should this time be any different.