40% of fatal shootings by police officers of unarmed victims, were African American men in 2015 (Lowery, cited in Jones, 2017, pg. 873). Known statistics such as this example, speculate the appearance of individual and systemic racism within the police force in the past, present, and as it appears the possibility of the future. African American’s have faced brutality, discrimination, and prejudice perceptions from privileged White Americans, for centuries such as during the slave era, to modern times as of today. These adverse ideologies society has of African American’s did not emerge out of nowhere, but rather from the media’s representation of racial stereotypes throughout its entire existence. These harrowing stereotypes have depicted that these racial minorities are deviant in the eyes of the Law and social control. As a result of the media’s continuous portrayal of African American individuals and communities throughout the evolution of media in the United States, it’s constructed a pervasive narrative that serves as justification for the abuse of black people, highlighted by police brutality.
Although mainstream media reporting had not always occurred, entertainment of ads, theatre, TV shows, and movies became a crucial factor of the beginning of the widespread stereotypes persuading deviance and the enforcement regarding fear of African Americans, particularly males. Through the era of slavery, African Americans were servants and workers of the upper white class. Without a choice, these people were prisoners to this lifestyle, unable to leave or disobey their masters. During the 19th century, it was white Americans objective to portray slavery as unharmful along with the fact that African Americans were meant for the roles as butlers, servants, workers, etc. and that they were pleased to serve these entitled individuals (Morris, 2011, pg.77). This led to the introduction of the stereotype that these African American men were illustrated as “lazy and childlike, docile and happy, in the role of the servant” (Morris,2011, pg.77), this stereotype was shown in movies, picture advertisements, and entertainment such as plays. This representation gave white people a sense of morality, that what they were doing was taking care of these black people, as though they were children (Pilgrim, cited in Morris,2011, pg.78).
The obedient childlike persona of African Americans was carried through into the beginning of the 20th century until America transitioned into the post-slavery era, where it became apparent this misrepresentation needed to be changed in order to keep African American men inferior and defer these men from entering society into situated authoritative, and dominant positions (Morris,2011, pg.79). To hinder the possibilities of this happening it became crucial to characterize these men as aggressive and threatening. This came from the idea that these men were concealing resentment resulting in anger and were willing to lash out against white people at any moment (Morris,2011, pg.79).
This indicated concept was the birth of the “Mandingo stereotype” portraying black men as “primitive and hypersexual” (Weaver Jr, 2016, pg.59). The stereotype was a given way of enforcing rape and murder accusations, whilst dividing black people from white. The change in perception was further spread by a media film by D.W Griffith called “Birth of a nation” which featured the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, and a white woman throwing herself off a cliff in order to escape the African American “brute’s” sexuality (Morris, 2011, pg.79). In continuation, this perception was further spread in advertisements, games, greeting cards etc.
Lynching began as a result of the justification of violence against black people since they were regarded as inherently deserving of these punishments due to their supposed deviance, violence, and sexuality. Lynching serves as a historical perspective of police brutality. Unknown to most, according to Weaver (2014, pg.5) half of the 5,000 lynching during the 20th century, incorporated members of law enforcement’s involvement or disregard. This set an early precedent that police could brutalize black people and get off scot-free.
The history of social control of African Americans by police can be drawn back to the slavery era in the South of the United States. The population of poor white southerners was greater than the population of black slaves, enabling the success of slave control by employing around 5 million poor white southerners into a significant police force who would keep slaves in order, murder those who acted in disobedience, and drive slaves (Bois, cited in Pratt-Harris,2016, pg. 379). Awareness of these task forces, brings forth the indication as to why white people in the past and present have a sense of privilege and ability to control black people, considering it was essentially a source of income during historical times. Along with the specialized police force William Lynch wrote a letter to owners of slaves that provided a method of slave control which embodied hate amongst black on blacks, white servants on black slaves, genders, age, and range of skin color (Lynch, cited in Pratt-Harris, 2016, pg. 380).
The knowledge on historical lynching, specialized police force, and media spread of misrepresentation of African Americans traits carries through into today’s explanation of why stereotypes are still existent such as the Mandigo stereotype, brought forth into modern day media by portrayals of African Americans as “thugs, gangsters, or other black male characters who lack empathy, and only show a penchant for violence and sexual activity” (Weaver Jr, 2016, pg. 60). Centuries of ideologies such as these have brought over a misrepresented view of African American’s in our society and annotation as to why police brutality is existent and rarely consequential, drawing attention to the continuation of white privilege.
Modern Day Media Influence on Victimization
According to a report consisting of how people receive news about crime in the United States, a mass of people provided that they receive their information via the media (Russell, cited by Oliver, 2003). This is essential in understanding the large-scale influence the media has on its viewers, and of those acquiring these stories from public discussion.
In a study conducted by Entman (1990) based on Chicago’s local news, Entman would report that stories covering African American’s were more inclined to depict crime, than news reports of white people (cited in Oliver, 2003, pg.6). This led to the statistic that 41% of stories covering African Americans were associated to crime (Entman, cited in Oliver, 2003, pg.6). During a continuation of a 6-month study of news on crime, Entman discovered 84% of crime perpetrated by black suspects were established as violent, in comparison to stories of crime related to 71% of white suspects. In addition to these findings, Entman expressed that when media outlets reported on black suspects, negative imagery such as the suspect being detained, handcuffed, or poorly dressed was broadcasted, in comparison to a white suspect (cited in, Oliver, 2003, pg.6).
The media’s insensitive reports in recent years of unarmed African American men, has created persuasive reasoning in defense of the actions of these police officers to the public. The media draws in and emphasizes these victims past or present criminal history, how these victims are perceived by physique or appearance in clothing etc., the location of where these killings occurred or where the victim has lived, and known stereotypes that have been continuously enforced by the media, such as violence, fear, and deviant characteristics of these victims (Smiley,& Fakunle, cited in Dukes,& Gaiter, 2017, pg. 791).
Circumstances that accentuated these occurrences are, Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed by a police officer when assumed to be a home intruder in his neighbourhood, was discredited by the media in regard to implementing deviance through the use of marijuana (Pratt-Harris, 2016, pg. 381), Philando Castile who had 52 previous arrests due to minor automobile offenses (Jones,2017, pg. 876), and Tamir Rice a 12 year old boy playing with a toy BB gun, implying threat and criminal responsibility. These representations of these victims along with many more destine blame to be placed on the victim.
The issue of biased stereotypical reports of these black victims by the media is brought forth in comparison to Dylan Roof, a white male who mass murdered nine black people in 2015, who notably was arrested by police, and although committing this heinous act, the question brought to attention by the media was in regard to Roof’s mental state, implementing the inquiry of criminal responsibility of his crime.
The medias representation of Black people is causing distrust and division between races. The improvised news the media is broadcasting, further causes racial stereotypes to inflict fear and anxiety from white civilians, as similarly mentioned in the historical context of this matter. An interpretation of research findings by Dixon and Linz (2000) prompted the thought that “white viewers who regularly watch television news may come to overestimate their chances of victimization and be unrealistically fearful of victimization by black perpetrators” (cited in, Oliver,2003, pg. 7). Research discovered that white people experienced increased brain activity in the regions that are associated with fear, when witnessing an unknown African American individual (Phelps, cited in Weaver Jr, 2016, pg.60).
These research findings could hypothetically correlate the excessive use of force by police officers when dealing with black individuals. Officer Darren Wilson, responsible for killing Michael B`rown stated that “he felt like a child in the grip of “Hulk Hogan” and that Michael Brown’s eyes revealed to him to be a demon possessed with the intent to inflict harm” (Weismann, cited in Pratt-Harris, 2016, pg. 381). Whether officer Wilson truly felt threatened or used the existent stereotype of threatening violence by black people as his defence, it is statements like these that justify the actions of brutality to the public, therefore producing victim blaming, and lack of sympathy for these victims of police brutality.
Research and narrative material regarding the history, and modern day influence the media has on negative portrayals of African Americans, demonstrates the impact on societies view of the justification in police brutality and killing of African American’s. Racial bias whether consciously or not in the police force, is influenced by the perception of black stereotypes, negatively painted in the media. The media’s influence on the public’s apprehension of black victims, allows for justification of these brutal killings of unarmed African American men as Dukes and Gaither brought attention to in a study, which resulted in the findings that people reported their opinion that victims were more at fault than the shooter when described in negatively, black racially stereotypical way (cited in, Jones, 2017, pg.876). Recollecting historical narratives, and observing the continuation of negative depictions, and prolongation of abuse towards black people, conveys a discouraging standpoint for the future of African Americans in the United States subjected to interactions with law enforcement and a biased society.