Media smarts

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. -Philippians 1:9-10 ESV

This week, I’ve been reminded of how important it is to be media literate. A recent New York Times story on the white supremacist history of lynching came under fire for neglecting to speak specifically about who was doing the lynching, Professor Angus Johnston tweeted: “The word “white” only appears in the article to describe women and girls the lynched men were accused of attacking.” By erasing the white actors from history, the Times made the systematic, premeditated, persistent perpetration of violence against black people seem inevitable, and it rendered the white killers invisible and unaccountable for their crimes.

The hoods hid them from the camera. We still hide them today.

The hoods hid them from the camera. We still hide them today.

This kind of skewed reporting isn’t limited to historical events. It happens frequently in how crime and violence are reported, and how the media talks about issues related to race, class, and gender. According to a survey of media studies conducted by Robert M. Entman and Kimberly A. Gross

1. Blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to appear as lawbreakers in news—particularly when the news is focusing on violent crime. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to appear as perpetrators than victims. Blacks are overrepresented as perpetrators of violent crime when news coverage is compared with arrest rates. Work that engages in “inter-reality” comparisons suggests the media portrayal is somewhat less distorted than the comparison of the number of black, white, and Latino perpetrators might imply. Nonetheless, the picture is troubling, suggesting that news cultivates the perception of blacks and Latinos as lawbreakers.

2. In contrast, whites are overrepresented as victims of violence and as law-enforcers, while blacks are underrepresented in these sympathetic roles.

3. These patterns are more disturbing when one considers that blacks and Latinos may not appear as frequently as whites outside the crime-news context. Because of the values that define the newsworthy, blacks in criminal roles tend to outnumber blacks in socially positive roles in newscasts and daily newspapers. In some areas, at least, Latinos may receive even worse treatment than blacks. Chiricos and Eschholz examined three weeks of local-news programming in Orlando and found that one in twenty whites appearing on the local television news was a criminal suspect compared with one in eight blacks and one in four Latinos.

4. Studies of local news in Chicago and elsewhere suggest that depictions of black suspects (mostly young men) tend to be more symbolically threatening than those of whites accused of similar crimes. Black defendants in one study were more likely to be shown in mug shots. In the ubiquitous “perp walks,” blacks were twice as likely as whites to be shown under some form of physical restraint by police—although all were accused of scary and generally violent crimes. In some notorious, highly publicized crimes—such as the 1989 alleged rape of a wealthy, young white woman in Central Park by a “gang” of Latino and black young men—young men of color appear particularly susceptible to portrayals that associate them with extreme threat and less-than-human traits. Narratives routinely used such words as “savage” and “wild.”

5. Violence and youth, especially male youth, are closely linked: most stories that feature young people on local news depict violence they commit or suffer, and in those stories, older white men are the dominant speakers. Local news does not often portray young persons as positively contributing to society.

6. People of color are more likely to be subjected to negative pretrial publicity. One study found that black and Latino defendants are twice as likely as white defendants to be subjected to negative pretrial publicity and that defendants who victimized whites were more likely to have prejudicial information broadcast about them than defendants who victimized nonwhites.

7. Several studies show that black victims are less likely to be covered than white victims in newspaper coverage of crime. But unlike studies focused on local television, studies of newspapers do not indicate that minorities are overrepresented as perpetrators. Newspaper coverage is somewhat better than local television news on some dimensions, if only because it does not follow the “if it bleeds it leads” norm and devotes much less of its news space to crime. Stories themselves are often longer and, on average, perhaps more likely to contain more context than TV. On the other hand, the additional words devoted to crime by newspapers might yield a greater net volume of negative pretrial information.

8. Aside from crime, perhaps the most frequent and disproportionate association made with persons of color in the news media is poverty. In stories featuring poverty as a topic, newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek overrepresent blacks, while underrepresenting whites, Latinos, and Asians. At the same time, the magazines overrepresent the nonworking poor and the urban poor in their illustrations of poverty. In this way, not only do media encode poverty as an especially black trait, but they undermine potential sympathy, especially among the white majority, for antipoverty programs. Poverty can be portrayed as a condition that merits sympathy, but it more often appears associated with threats in the form of crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and aimless activity.

Such messages not only stereotype the blacks and Latinos who are featured in them, but also contribute to a stereotypical association between blacks, criminality, and guilt that can influence evaluations and behavior. These messages also reinforce negative emotions and a sense of social distance that may promote a belief in inherent group conflict between blacks or Latinos and whites. Moreover, these stereotypes arise not merely from the news, but from TV and film entertainment, advertising, and sports programming as well.

In an age where we are inundated with information, we have to be vigilant in what we consume and how we receive it. When we are reading headlines or watching local news, here are some elements to keep in mind about the portrayals of marginalized people (this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination):

  • Violence in marginalized communities is usually written about in terms that make it sound random or commonplace: “Teen shot in Somewhere.” Communities responding to the violence (looking for information, comforting family members, or waiting to answer police questions) are portrayed as chaotic mobs, “crowds gathered” or “residents stood in the street.” Context, including events leading up to and following the crime, is not given.
  • Victims’ names are buried until the end of the story. Perpetrators aren’t named at all.
  • Race, religion, sexuality, gender is only mentioned if the person isn’t white, Christian (or atheist/agnostic), or heterosexual/cisgender. Transgender people are often misgendered. If a person is white, whiteness isn’t mentioned.
  • When the victim is a person of color, media choose photos or background details about the victim that implicate the victim in their own demise (see the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown for examples of how this works).

It’s important that we become media savvy if we are to advocate for justice, contend for truth, and love our neighbors well. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” as they navigated their communities and culture. For more ways you can consume media more critically, visit Fair.org.

From a new video game developed to draw attention to disparities in media coverage (story linked in photo)

From a new video game developed to draw attention to disparities in media coverage (story linked in photo)

White lies: they won’t kill you if you’re peaceful

A lot of people I talk to about police brutality ask me, “Why don’t black folks just submit to cops and cooperate?” It’s a seemingly reasonable question, but it makes a couple of important assumptions: 1) black folks aren’t cooperative with or appropriately respectful of police in the first place, and 2) brutality and harassment are in some way the responsibility of the victim, and not the perpetrator. The idea that black folks can perform for their own humanity is downright offensive.

This concept is called “respectability politics.” A quick primer from Gradient Lair:

The politics of respectability originated as cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic “guidelines” or “rules” for racially marginalized groups to follow in the effort to be viewed as “human” in a White supremacist society and by individual Whites. Some of the most noticeable manifestations of the politics of respectability occurs among Black people because of the history dehumanization because of slavery.

The politics of respectability implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior as approved by White supremacy…behaviors that Whites themselves don’t have to engage in to “prove” humanity because of White privilege; they’re always viewed as “the default human.”

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation. (There are arguments to be made that this helped the women’s club movement among Black women’s anti-racism, womanist work in the early 20th century). However, what it ended up doing in many cases was fragmenting the Black working class/poor from the Black middle class, who despite performing respectability to spec, were often still alienated from the Whites they sought approval from. (Where do you think “uppity Negro” comes from? This.) And Black people regardless of class were (and still are) targets of racism.

Today, the politics of respectability is forcefully injected into any conversation about race by both Black and White people. Bill Cosby and Don Lemon are examples. And anytime they shame and scold fellow Black people (as the President has done sometimes too) Whites applaud because once again, they have ZERO accountability for racism.

This myth that White-approved performance (versus actually living) will eradicate racism because Whites will finally “like” Black people is ludicrous and is pushed by those who engage in victim blaming, since it’s easier than admitting the truth about racism.

Black people are human and shouldn’t have to “audition” for humanity based on clothing, speech style, neighborhood lived in, educational level etc. These rules are meant to dehumanize and justify oppression. And if the President of the United States was asked “papers please?” then obviously resume, grooming, education, and even power is irrelevant in a Black body; obviously the politics of respectability won’t save.

When we white folks argue that black folks should just cooperate with dehumanization, we are ignoring the fact that black parents have been giving de-escalation advice to their children for centuries. Giving children counsel on how to show deference to dangerous white folks is such a common conversation that it has come to be known as “The Talk.”

In a country where respected black men like LeVar Burton can be pulled over without cause or men like professor Henry Louis Gates can be arrested for “breaking into” their own homes, attempts at de-escalation by black folks is certainly not guaranteed to be effective.

During the prosecution of Jordan Davis’ killer, Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, talked with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about the uncertainty that the killer, who had been let off by a hung jury in his first trial, would see justice:

I am disheartened that as far as we’ve come it doesn’t matter that we have a black president. It doesn’t matter how educated we’ve become. It doesn’t matter because there still is an issue of race in this country. No, we have not really arrived. If something like this can happen, we have not arrived.

Jordan Davis, like so many of his peers, was raised in a loving home, by parents that taught him to respect authority and be above reproach under scrutiny, even though they knew it might not be able to save his life. Respectability doesn’t consistently win the day. Davis’ family finally saw a conviction of his killer, but for many others, their deaths go unpunished. Coates writes elsewhere, speaking of white parents who discover the dangers their black children face:

This scenario is almost indistinguishable from any black parent forced to confront the future of their child in this country. The heart of the problem is that the mother’s child has been kicked out the dome and thrown into the wiles where—like all of us—her child stands a not-insignificant chance of becoming Jordan Davis.

And [2014] was the summer of Jordan Davises, the summer of bodies when every day, a black parent could log on to the Internet and see the bodies of black people choked into oblivion, beaten on the side of the road, stalked and raped, tased for straying too long, pistol-whipped for running too fast, shot down for mental illness, shot down for cos-play, shot down for allegedly ignoring orders, shot down for too quickly obeying orders.

Respectability is not the answer. Respectability interrogates the wrong actor and puts the responsibility for not-being-killed on the victim rather than the person who is abusing power or perpetrating the crime. We casually tell young black people that if they just cooperate with abusive systems, they will be fine. They might get arrested, but they won’t be killed. They can get a lawyer and live to fight another day.

But that advice ignores the disparities that we have in the racialized justice system. Racist policing might be one of the first threats, but it’s certainly not the only one. It often gets worse after the arrest. Jonathan Rapping writes:

We have accepted a criminal-justice narrative that lumps the world into categories of villains and heroes. Police and prosecutors are good guys in white hats. The communities they police—particularly poor and minority communities—are presumed dangerous. It is this dehumanization that lulls us into complacency, suppressing our outrage over the fact that 2.2 million, almost exclusively poor people are warehoused in conditions so deplorable that some would rather die than live in them (consider the sixty-day hunger strike last year at Pelican Bay State Prison protesting inhumane living conditions). It allows us to remain blind to the fact that the vast majority of people in the criminal-justice system are processed from arrest to conviction with only an overwhelmed and under resourced public defender to try to get them justice. It enables us to accept a system which disproportionately punishes people based on race. It enables us to become completely detached from the people and families destroyed by our indifference, and to accept “tough on crime” policies that destroy America’s most vulnerable communities.

The battle for equal justice will only be won when we demand equal treatment in every aspect of our justice system. We must muster outrage over the routine dehumanization that happens in our criminal-justice system, rather than reserve it for the most extraordinary instances of injustice, if we are to maintain a movement for change.

As Christians, it’s even more imperative that we reject respectability politics. We have to start asking ourselves, why do we only value human life when it is respectable? Is that attitude consistent with the gospel of human life that we preach? Did Christ die for the respectable? When He walked the earth, did Christ live among the respectable? Was He Himself “respectable“?

Jesus challenged evil in the authorities and principalities of his day. Does He still not challenge the evil in ours? We should join Him there and stand in solidarity with the marginalized instead of blaming them for their oppression. After all, He is the prince of peace, and they killed Him, too.

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Don’t buy the lies of white supremacy. Black lives matter.

The Silent Idol of Whiteness

Since my post over the weekend, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about whiteness. And I don’t like it. To talk about whiteness is to saddle up the angry elephant in the room and ride that sucker around.

In America, whiteness is our default. I catch myself in conversations with my husband where I’m describing a new acquaintance and I’ll describe everything about her BUT her race if she’s white. If she’s not, race is the first thing I usually mention. White is my default. Everyone else is other. I’m learning to see whiteness.

And what I’m seeing when I see whiteness isn’t just race. I’m seeing the lies behind the labels. I’m seeing my own fears and biases. (If you want to borrow my mirror on this, there are bias tests that can help you see your own ugly.) This week, I shared this comment on Facebook. It felt like a plea for help, like all confession does.

I don’t condone destruction or looting. I have to ask, though, why collectively we’re more concerned about storefronts and the destruction of property than we are about loss of human life? Why are we more afraid of a large group of unarmed angry black protestors than we are of armed angry white protestors? I’m asking these questions of myself as much as I’m asking any of you guys. When it comes to racism, there may be differing degrees of complicity and perpetration, but we’re all in recovery together. Let’s admit we have a problem…Hi, my name is Cayce and I’ve adopted racist constructs and fears.

Most of the conversations I’ve been having about whiteness go off the rails immediately. The biggest obstacle to productive discussions and reflection comes when a white person I’m talking to says, “Are you calling me a racist?” I’m immediately put on the defensive, and compelled to walk back what I’ve said, etc. because where we live, being called a racist is worse than actually being one. Now, there are a lot of fantastic resources on the web to deal with this particular derailment. (My favorite is this one.)

But the truth is, no matter what facts you give, no matter how you walk it back or try to explain it, the accusation that you’ve called a white person a racist just sticks. So from here on, I’m changing my strategy. If you ask me am I calling you a racist, I’m going there with you:

Yes. You are a racist. So am I. Let’s get some help.

If I’ve learned anything from my walk with Jesus, if someone is calling me out, I will want to fight it. But every confrontation with the truth goes easier for me if I surrender quickly. So, my reputation as a white person with racist attitudes is out there.

There is a fear in facing the whiteness and all the privilege it entails. We can’t seem to look it in the eye. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think the most likely is this: we like the lie.

Bejamin Corey addresses this at Patheos:

If we admit to the existence of systemic racism in America, it will prove false the American narrative so many of us grew up believing…We can’t admit that systemic racism exists, because that will mean the narrative we were taught about America is a huge lie…If we admit to the existence of systemic racism in America, it makes us guiltyWe don’t want to admit it because we’d have to admit that we’ve been complicit in the sin by not addressing the sin…If we admit to the existence of systemic racism, it would demand costly change.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates nailed it this week in the context of conversations about what’s going down in Ferguson:


We are being told that Michael Brown attacked an armed man and tried to take his gun. The people who are telling us this hail from that universe where choke-holds are warm-fuzzies, where boys discard their skittles yelling, “You’re gonna die tonight,” and possess the power to summon and banish shotguns from the ether. These are the necessary myths of our country, and without them we are subject to the awful specter of history, and that is just too much for us to bear.

Taken all together, the body count that led us to our present tenuous democratic moment does not elevate us above the community of nations, but installs us uncomfortably within its ranks. And that is terrifying because it shows us to be neither providential nor exceptional, and only special in the subjective sense that our families are special—because they are ours.

As Coates points out, we have a distorted view of our history in America. We want the good old story so bad, so we will refuse to see the connections of the evils in our past and the evils in our present.

Squandering opportunities to do it better than we did before.

Squandering opportunities to do it better than we did before.

The Bible makes it clear that there’s nothing new under the sun. Perhaps it’s because despite our lip-service to the contrary, we don’t really want to learn our lesson. But God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. He’s given us the opportunity to start again. He died and brought Himself back so that we could know the liberation of confession, forgiveness, and contrition. He’s given us His Word to bring us hope and to teach us what to do. He’s calling us to stand with the oppressed.

Greg Ogden writes:

The symbol of justice in our society is a blindfolded woman, indicating that justice is blind. The fair judge is dispassionately objective, free from bias, who rationally decides what is right before an impersonal law. On the other hand, the role of the judge and justice in Israel was to actively and redemtively seek to protect the poor from the wiles of the rich and powerful. So strong was the skepticism toward the powerful that the poor in the courts were often viewed collectively as the innocent and the righteous…

Time and again we see God’s prophets rail against the abuses of the powerful. To those of us living under the illusion of “American justice” as it stands today, reading the Scriptures can be disconcerting. We want to explain this aspect of God’s character away with a hermeneutic, “Well, He meant poor in spirit. Well, He meant that for that time, and that culture only. He doesn’t do that to nations or expect that of us anymore.” We just ‘splain these texts away.

To us, Biblical justice feels unfair. It feels like partiality. Because it is.

God in His wisdom, has accounted for our propensity for sin and abuse of power. He has anticipated our behavior, both the individual and the collective, and He talks about it. A lot.

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter…

He also gives us a solution for these problems in confession, repentance, and ultimately, solidarity:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

-Ecclesiastes 4

The privileged among us don’t just stand in solidarity just to be helpful. We are called to need the oppressed. The oppressed keep us accountable for our complicity in oppression. They remind us of the suffering servant Jesus. They give us the opportunity to participate with God in an act of restorative justice. They shatter our insulated, white-informed [un]consciousness with their prayers of lamentation:

We are touching the bibles handed down from our great-grandparents gnarled hands to our smooth, desk-working ones. We are reciting the promises inside them. Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousnessBlessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 

You promised, we pray, as though we’ve been betrayed. You promised, we repeat, as though we may have been forsaken. But we’d forgotten that we are still walking and that the shadow of death may not look like a hospital bed at the end of a long, storied life, but instead like a city on lockdown, asphyxiating its citizens, imposing a curfew on all who seek justice, donning riot gear and rolling tanks simply to protect a police officer who murdered someone whose skin looked like our own.

(There is still time left, right, Lord? There’s still time, isn’t there, for You to redeem these dark times?)

 Please. Please. Just be patient. We are making our way. But you must understand that it is hard, when we are cordoned on all sides by toxic clouds. Surely, you can empathize with how difficult it is to be clear-eyed while gagging on these cannisters of cover-ups.

Stacia Brown

We’ve worked hard to build this American narrative: of founding fathers, hearth-tending mothers, courageous colonizers, forbearing minorities, and magnanimous white benefactors. But hard work does not a truth make. We have become like the blacksmith constructing an idol in Isaiah 44:

The blacksmith takes a tool
    and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
    he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
    he drinks no water and grows faint.
The carpenter measures with a line
    and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
    and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
    human form in all its glory,
    that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cut down cedars,
    or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
    or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is used as fuel for burning;
    some of it he takes and warms himself,
    he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
    he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
    over it he prepares his meal,
    he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
    “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
    he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
    “Save me! You are my god!”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
    no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
    I even baked bread over its coals,
    I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
    Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

It’s time to acknowledge the singe story we’ve told ourselves, and admit we’ve bought into a system of oppression. We’ve believed it. We defended it. We’ve taught our children to love it. We have worshipped the idol and laid waste to the image of God that He set before us in the bodies of our black brothers and sisters.

policeAcknowledging the truth about America doesn’t mean I hate it. It doesn’t negate the sacrifice people before us have made with their lives. For the love of God, Christ died for sinners while they were still sinners. We’re no exception to that because we’re American or because we’re white. We’re full of error. And that is an amendable fact if we own up to it.

shirleyWe have to ask ourselves if we have biases that inconsistent with God’s justice. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Who gets scrutiny? Who do we easily love? Who do we easily fear? These aren’t fun questions. The answers are often embarrassing. But they don’t have to be the last word because we have a remarkable capacity for change.

Am I racist? Yes, but I might not be racist tomorrow. It’s possible to do better. Rather than defending my reputation, I want to change my posture and seek to be saved from this. I have to hold out hope, despite the things I’m seeing to the contrary, that us white people can get it right.