Coloring Crime: Race, Violence and Media Manipulation

Published as a ZNet Commentary, 6/1/03

Ask the average American to describe the typical drug user or dealer and they’ll say he’s a black male, even though blacks make up only thirteen percent of drug users and sixteen percent of dealers. Most dealers and about 73 percent of users are white, according to federal data.

Ask the average American to describe the typical violent criminal, and likewise they’ll say he’s a black male, although the Justice Department’s annual Victimization Survey indicates that African Americans commit only between 25-28 percent of all violent crimes in a typical year. Non-Hispanic whites commit the majority of such offenses, and thus, are the “typical” violent criminals.

That public perceptions are so far from reality cannot owe to genuine individual experience. After all, it is not possible that most people have been attacked by a black person or know someone who has. This is especially true for whites, who most often stereotype criminals as black, despite the fact that we are four times more likely to be assaulted by another white person, and less than four-tenths of one percent of us will be violently victimized by a black person each year. So what explains the common racial stereotypes with which we are all familiar?

For those struggling for an answer, one need look no further than the news media, which overhypes crime news generally — coverage has exploded in recent years even as crime has been plummeting — and especially crimes in cities committed by people of color. Despite the occasional focus on white school shooters or white guys who kill their families because their stock crashes, studies confirm that not only does crime take up a huge amount of overall news, but crimes with black perps and/or white victims are the most hyped of all: think Central Park Jogger, for example. In general, media has a tendency to inflate public fears of blacks and Latinos by way of overwhelmingly negative coverage. While not all crime stories involve blacks, for example, those stories that do involve blacks disproportionately revolve around crime, poverty, drugs or other generally negative imagery.

As one especially egregious example, consider the May 2 broadcast of Good Morning America, during which Charlie Gibson and the bunch replayed video from Milwaukee, which depicted several black women attacking a car with baseball bats at a gas station. The car did not belong to President Bush, the Mayor of Milwaukee, or anyone else whose victimization would have made this scene nationally newsworthy. The persons inside the automobile, though surely horrified by the event were only slightly injured, further reducing its logical news value beyond the confines of Milwaukee itself. Yet there it was on national TV, with Gibson explaining that police had released the video in the hopes that the public might “help in catching these young women.” That the women are not likely to be interstate fugitives on a national car-bashing spree, and thus there isn’t much that viewers in Omaha or Poughkeepsie can expect to do about them or much reason for them to worry, never seems to have entered his mind.

What could possibly be the value of this story outside of Milwaukee? What purpose could it serve; other than to provide some exciting footage to fill space between gushing stories about solider boys in Iraq and the women who love them back home? The answers are: very little value, and very little purpose. As such, to play this footage, given its likelihood for reinforcing common racial fears and assumptions, seems a singularly remarkable display of irresponsible journalism, which can do nothing to improve the odds of apprehending the subjects, but which can serve to maintain the impression of blacks as lawless thugs. One should contrast this coverage with the decided lack of the same in cases where whites engage in acts of mayhem. Three days after the airing of the Milwaukee video, white college students at the University of Cincinnati celebrated Cinco de Mayo by taking to the streets, overturning cars, throwing sofas out of windows and setting them on fire. Yet, there was no footage of the mini-riot on GMA the next day, despite the fact that such an event surely must have provided some exciting video.

Likewise, within the last few years there have been dozens of riots involving almost exclusively white students at college campuses across America, almost none of which have received national coverage. This, despite the fact that having happened repeatedly in several different states, such college riots could be said to represent something of a trend, unlike black women attacking cars with baseball bats. Yet thousands of white co-eds behaving badly is not considered news, while a handful of black women in Milwaukee doing so is headline material.

Even recent footage of affluent white high schoolers “hazing” classmates by throwing feces on them and attacking them with fists, food and pig intestines hasn’t been presented in such a way as to inspire fear at the sight of such teens in one’s neighborhood. Hazing, after all, is seen differently than “wilding” (the term used when the perpetrators of the nastiness are people of color). Not to mention, the news hook for the hazing incident was that the event seemed so abnormal, so out-of-place for places where the beautiful people live. In other words, it was presented so as to emphasize how surprising such misbehavior by well-off whites is, while misbehavior by the black and brown is never filtered through the lens of bewilderment, even though this kind of group violence is hardly typical in any community.

Consider, for example, the 1999 footage of a fight involving black students at a Decatur, Illinois high school football game, which was certainly not discussed as an aberrant, inexplicable event, though indeed it was not the norm at the school in question any more so than the recent “hazing” by whites. Although it lasted only 20 seconds, involved no weapons (unlike the suburban event in which students smashed trashcans into the heads of classmates), and resulted in no sustained injuries (unlike the white brawl which sent five kids to the hospital), the Decatur fight was treated as far more vicious than the suburban event, even though by any objective standard it was considerably less so.

Actually, it’s not only the news that perpetuates racial stereotypes. Consider a recent study on popular movies dealing with high school students and the schools they attend. According to the analysis of dozens of such movies, those dealing with urban schools almost always present the institutions as cesspools of dysfunction, usually “saved” by a strong authority figure who gets the students to achieve against all odds. On the other hand, films based around suburban schools emphasize relationships, goofing off and cliquishness, but rarely violence. It is as if urban black and brown schools are non-stop sites of chaos, while suburban schools are idyllic and without serious problems.

Of course, the reality is altogether different. To begin with, schools in general are not as violent as the public imagines. Indeed, young people are less than half as likely to be violently victimized in school as they are away from school grounds. Only one in ten American schools experience even a single incident of serious violence in a given school year, and American youth suffer at least ten times more violence at the hands of abusive parents each year than at the hands of students in school. Since 1992, there has been a 46 percent drop in the rate of violence in middle and high schools, with nearly half-a-million fewer incidents today than a decade ago. As for serious violence (aggravated assault, rape or armed robbery), victimization rates have been cut in half during the same time period, and in urban schools violence has fallen by 56 percent.

What’s more, the typical formula of “urban schools and kids of color bad/suburban schools and white kids good,” is also false. According to the Departments of Education and Justice, white high school students are more likely to bring a weapon to campus than blacks, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, white male seniors are twice as likely as black male seniors to bring a weapon to school. In fact, among all major racial and ethnic groups for which data is collected, blacks have the lowest rate of carrying weapons to school.

Perhaps most interesting, when it comes to violence at school, there are no consistent differences between urban, suburban and rural schools in terms of levels of victimization. What differences exist actually indicate slightly higher victimization rates in suburban schools than in urban schools, though researchers note that these differences are not statistically significant. In 2000, for example, suburban students were victimized at a rate that was nine percent higher than urban students for all crimes, and 27 percent higher for violent crimes — mostly simple assaults in the context of a fight. Even rural school students are victimized at rates that are comparable to urban students.

From 1992-1999, suburban victimization rates were equal to urban victimization rates, indicating there is simply no greater general risk of violence in city schools than non-city schools, contrary to popular belief. Although acts of “serious violence” are more common in urban schools, these incidents are so rare in either setting that it hardly makes sense to view urban schools as places of rampant mayhem.

But perhaps it’s unfair to blame media entirely. After all, if not for racism in the justice system — which results in blacks and Latinos comprising more than half of all drug possession arrests and 90 percent of possession incarcerations, despite being about twenty-three percent of total users — the media would be unable to convince the public that people of color were the source of drug crime. Likewise, with blacks making up about half of violent crime arrests, despite committing about a fourth of violent crimes, one can hardly expect the public to understand how flawed their stereotypes are.

But one thing is certain: until the media decides to present crime news factually, and dig beneath the easily relied upon images of urban dysfunction, it will remain much easier for that racist justice system to resist change, as the public will remain woefully ignorant of the need for such change in the first place.

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