The Real Trouble with Black Boys
Amid the furor surrounding the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of self-styled neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, we find this slice of dubious wisdom from Geraldo Rivera: “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”
“When you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street,” Mr. Rivera goes on to say, “You try to avoid that confrontation. … I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that — that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”
Mr. Rivera, before you decide to launch a misguided #stophoodie2012 campaign a la Kony, let me posit a different theory. Could it be that the problem wasn’t Trayvon or his hoodie? Could it be that part of the problem is you? Because by making such ridiculous, tone-deaf statements, you’re simply exacerbating the bias that’s at the heart of this issue. You see, what you say and do matters, Mr. Rivera — not because you are Geraldo Rivera, the individual, but because you are Geraldo Rivera, a member of the media establishment, and media is one of the most powerful ways that such stereotypes and biases get spread and reinforced in the first place.
Consider a recently released research report titled “Opportunity for Black Men and Boys: Public Opinion, Media Depictions and Media Consumption.” The report highlights some troubling points, which those of us who are concerned about equality, fairness and justice in this country intrinsically know: “Among the many factors that influence the opportunities and achievements of black men and boys are public perceptions and attitudes toward them as a group, and their own self-perception. Research and experience show that expectations and biases on the part of potential employers, teachers, health care providers, police officers, and other stakeholders influence the life outcomes of millions of black males, just as their own self-esteem, identity, and sense of empowerment affect their ability to achieve under difficult circumstances. In turn, one of the most important avenues for maintaining (or changing) these perceptions is the mass media, with its significant power to shape popular ideas and attitudes.”
When it come to mass media, the report details, black men and boys are:
Simply put: the media to a large extent ignores the fullness, richness and complexity of black men and boys’ lives.- Vastly underrepresented: They are all too rarely visible across multiple mediums, whether as characters in TV shows, in advertisements, or – as my partner often points out – in video games. They are also underrepresented as “talking heads” or experts on the news.
- Negatively depicted: When they do appear in media, they are depicted in a negative light. Rather than as “relatable characters with well-developed personal lives (i.e. fathers)…black males are overrepresented when the media touch on certain negative topics, such as criminality, unemployment, and poverty,” the report says.
- Narrowly portrayed: Any “positive images and attributes with which black males are associated tend to be constrained to a small, stereotypic set which includes sports, physical achievement in general, aggressiveness, and musicality, to the exclusion of other everyday virtues.
The result? According to the report: “Distorted media representations can be expected to create attitudinal effects ranging from general antagonism toward black men and boys, to higher tolerance for race-based socio-economic disparities, reduced attention to structural and other big-picture factors, and public support for punitive approaches to problems.”
In turn — and pay extra close attention to this part Mr. RIvera — these perceptions could mean trouble “any time a black man or boy is in a position where his fate depends on how he is perceived by others.” The impact can range from less attention from doctors, and harsher sentencing by judges to lower likelihood of being hired or admitted to school. The impact can also include a beautiful young boy being shot for no discernible reason and the institutions sworn to protect and serve him failing to even detain his killer a month after his death.
In a sense you are right, Mr. Rivera. Bias against black men and boys does lead to negative and sad outcomes. It can make us, as you say, walk to the other side of the street when we see them coming our way. It can make us see a weapon when there is only candy. It can make police officers see dangerous thugs rather than fathers, brothers or sons. It can make teachers and school administrators see future criminals that deserve harsh punishment rather than scared or troubled little boys needing help and comfort.
But, if you really care for our youth, Mr. Rivera, why don’t you use your considerable platform to change the way black men and boys are depicted and represented in your chosen career field — news, specifically, or mass media, broadly? Instead of asking parents not to let their kids wear hoodies, why don’t you push for diversity in TV, print or online news, at all levels, as subjects, reporters and executives? Or advocate for more training so reporters don’t reinforce problematic frames when they cover communities of color? Or call for multi-dimensional representations of black men and boys in books, on reality TV, on talk shows, in sitcoms and in movies? Maybe then you can help us begin to change how we as a society perceive black and brown men and boys. Maybe then, Mr. Rivera, you can actually help save people’s lives, rather than simply perpetuating stereotypes.
Bilen Mesfin is a former journalist and a strategic communications consultant for social change leaders and organizations.