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The broken mirror: media narrative vs. reality
Everyone knows that in America today, white people frequently attack black people without provocation. In mainstream American media, it is almost impossible to avoid this narrative: racial conflict is a normal part of everyday life, and white people are generally the aggressors. According to this narrative, even walking your dog while black can be a risk. In September of last year, an apparently deranged white woman became famous after confronting a black couple leaving a popular Brooklyn dog park, screaming at them to “get back to [their] hood.” This was actually the second recent high-profile racial conflict involving dogs in New York City: in the late spring of 2020, another white female dog-walker allegedly threatened to call the police on a purportedly innocent black bird-watcher and falsify criminal charges against him. The “Central Park Bird-watching Incident,” as it is now called, has its own Wikipedia page.
Even before these ugly Plague Year conflicts, who could forget “BBQ Becky,” who ruthlessly called the police on innocent black barbecuers; “Pool Patrol Paula,” who physically beat a black teen; or “Coupon Carl,” who publicly doubted the integrity of an African American female shopper?
Then, of course, there are the atrocities committed by the police themselves. A core element of today’s narrative of enduring racial conflict is the idea that normal black Americans face constant harassment and abuse from those entrusted to enforce the law. In his best-selling book appropriately titled Open Season: the Legalized Genocide of Colored People, prominent attorney Benjamin Crump argues that state violence against black Americans quietly reaches near-genocidal levels, while activist leader Cherno Biko has claimed on prime-time television that an innocent black man is “murdered” by police roughly once per day. Apparently, this sort of rhetoric often achieves its purpose: studies show that the average “very liberal” American believes that between 1,000 and 10,000 unarmed black men are killed annually by cops; now virtually any city-dwelling citizen would recognize the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Jacob Blake, and many other victims of purportedly “unjustified” police violence.
However, as the old newsman’s line goes, the problem with this story-line is that it isn’t true. In virtually none of the situations described above did the original mainstream media narrative come anywhere close to matching reality. The “crazy woman” who told innocent black folks to “go back to their hood” insists that she was merely referring to another nearby dog park. Her more famous sister-of-the-leash, Amy Cooper—who did behave badly—also did not simply decide at random to threaten a black man. She began making threats only after Christian Cooper started acting bizarrely himself—trying to lure her dog over to him with treats from his pocket, and muttering that he was about to do something to Amy Cooper that she “(wasn’t) going to like.”
And—while “Pool Patrol Paula” (Stephanie Sebby-Strempel) does seem to have been unnecessarily aggressive—even the legendary BBQ Becky didn’t do much of anything wrong. As I note in my book Taboo, she observed an entire family grilling in a “dog run” area of an Oakland, California park where open flames are prohibited, and simply walked over and asked them to move. When the grillers refused, a shouting match ensued—of the kind that would be familiar to anyone who lives in a big city. Bemused police eventually showed up and refused to arrest anyone on either side, but social media made the incident appear far more extreme than it was.
While there are certainly exceptions, the vast majority of racialized police brutality stories collapse under even a cursory examination. Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was cleared of any wrong-doing by both a grand jury and a separate federal investigation, after it emerged that Brown had attacked him unprovoked, rather than pleading for his life with hands raised before being shot as many were led to believe. Jacob Blake returned uninvited to the home of his former girlfriend—who had previously accused him of rape—and violently fought with police before being non-fatally shot; the officers involved in his case were also found not to have used excessive force by the Department of Justice. The Trayvon Martin case was tragic for all involved, but Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, turned out to be neither a police officer nor white in any conventional sense—but rather a Hispanic neighborhood watch-man.
Quantitative analysis further demonstrates that, despite the dominant narratives in the mainstream media, inter-racial violence in contemporary America is actually very rare. In the representative year of 2018, inter-racial violent crime involving blacks and whites made up approximately 3 percent of all serious crime: there were only about 600,000 victim-reported incidents involving a black perpetrator and a white victim, or vice-versa, out of more than 20,000,000 total crimes.
Further, of the violent inter-racial crime that does occur, more than 80 percent of reported incidents involved a black perpetrator and a white victim. The data tables in the 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report include more than 500,000 black-on-white violent incidents, but well under 100,000 violent crimes that were white-on-black. While this finding is not necessarily surprising—there are far more whites than blacks, and whites, on average, have more money to be stolen—it would likely come as a shock to most upper-middle class Americans. As would another piece of data: according to the Washington Post, the total number of unarmed black men killed by police during the most recent year on record (2020) was not 10,000, or 1,000, but 17. That bears spelling out: in the year where America was supposedly inundated with white supremacist violence, where America was in the grips of a “racial reckoning” that included, in no small part, the acknowledgement of the “state-sanctioned murder” of young black men, only SEVENTEEN unarmed black men died at the hands of police officers.
This data leads us to an obvious question: why do so many smart people believe inter-ethnic violence is so much worse than it is? One reason is that American mainstream media is structured in a way that incentivizes the promotion of stories that worsen political polarization. The same could also be said for social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Basic data about inter-racial violence often seem not merely ignored by mainstream media sources, but actively misrepresented.
In Taboo, I point out that about 75 percent of individuals fatally shot by police in a typical year are Caucasian whites or Hispanics. However, national media outlets devote less than 20 percent of their police violence coverage to these cases. A Google search for “well-known police shooting,” conducted in 2020 in connection with the book, turned up articles which covered two police shootings of Latinos, four police shootings of whites, and 36 police shootings of blacks. This level of over-representation of black victims in coverage (2,400 percent) could hardly be the result of anything but very conscious choice—and respected social scientists like John Lott have argued empirically that media treatment of a range of issues, from political extremism to mass shootings, follows a similar troubling pattern.
Two recent cases provide archetypal examples of this problem. Almost from the moment of his arrest, Kyle Rittenhouse—an Illinois teen involved in a shooting during a fight at a Black Lives Matter protest—was described as a “racist” and “white supremacist” by some of the most prominent political and media figures in the United States. Even the primary fund-raising page for Rittenhouse’s legal defense team was taken down by GoFundMe, following media and activist complaints about its existence.
In the end, Rittenhouse turned out to be an anti-racist Black Lives Matter supporter, who provided medical help to fighters on both sides during the 2019 violence and stated that he was motivated to defend an Indian-American-owned business. The people he shot—constantly described on CNN and MSNBC as “Black Lives Matter protesters” who were “protesting for Black Lives”—were also all entirely white. Due to the tone and tenor of previous coverage, these facts astonished at least a dozen of my personal friends when they were revealed during Rittenhouse’s lengthy televised trial.
The media took a noticeably different tone just a few days after the final Rittenhouse acquittal, when Midwest gangsta rapper Darrell Brooks (aka Mathboi Fly) intentionally drove his red SUV down the main route of the annual Waukesha, Wisconsin, Christmas Parade, killing six people and injuring dozens. Brooks was a previously convicted violent felon, known for posting anti-white messages and images on social media. Despite both Brooks’ demonstrated history of anti-white racism and the fact that his attack took place mere days after an alleged white supremacist was acquitted, media outlets showed a remarkable lack of curiosity about Brooks’ motive. So far as I can tell, not one has asked him about it. Indeed, CNN’s original lead headline (still accessible online)—“Fatalities after SUV Plows through Wisconsin Holiday Parade”—would suggest its reporters have little intention of uncovering the human motivations that resulted in those fatalities. At some level, we all know the national coverage would have been very different had a regionally famous hard rock singer, known for his racism, plowed down a line of Jesse White Tumblers or HBCU Golden Girls. The story would never have died: it would have dominated media coverage for weeks, as did the stories of Dylann Roof, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake.
But how the media decides to cover important events matters enormously, because these decisions, if they are made in haste, can potentially give rise to widespread fears that are based on wholly incorrect underlying beliefs. It would be one thing for them to decide not to discuss at all the relatively tiny percentage of inter-racial crime (I might support that myself!). But, it is another thing entirely to terrify citizens by focusing on the small percentage (10-20 percent) of white-on-black attacks within that relatively tiny percentage (3 percent) of crime that is violent and involves those two groups. The decision on the part of major media outlets to consistently misrepresent the facts in this way has generated a narrative almost directly opposed to reality.
The media are not—as bombastic former President Donald Trump has called them—the “enemy of the people.” But they very often do end up distorting the truth instead of illuminating it, as journalists are supposed to do, and this is especially consequential for sensitive topics like race and police brutality. In order for our country to truly address the vestiges of racism that still exist, it’s essential that the media provide a clear and honest picture of racial relations in contemporary America.
In keeping with our desire to foster a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, FAIR is committed to promoting voices with diverse perspectives. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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