Recent debate over the types of photos used to portray black shooting victims exposes a widely held bias that assumes they are criminals, rights advocates said this week as many in the African-American community called attention to what they say is mainstream media misrepresentation in the wake of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man.
A Twitter campaign has drawn nearly 200,000 users to repost the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, which poses the question “If they gunned me down, what photo would you use?”
Kelley said such stereotypes have persisted decades after the civil rights movement because many Americans believe they live in a postracial society — which he said contributes to indifference.
“The fact of the matter is that whiteness presumes innocence and blackness presumes guilt, and you have to prove yourself otherwise,” he said. “This has become routine. We have studies from the Malcolm X Foundation that say every 28 hours a black man dies with his hands up. That’s not a small statistic. That’s incredible.”
Exacerbating the problem, Robinson said, are media portrayals of African-American men in narrow roles.
“A recent Pew Research Poll said most Americans get their news from local news coverage, and local news coverage of black men was relegated overwhelmingly — around 80 percent — to crime and sports,” he said. “The media has a responsibility to delve into stereotypes and debunk them.”
He said such coverage leaves an impression in many Americans’ minds of where different groups fit into the larger culture, and that affects the treatment they receive.
“It impacts how black boys are perceived as valuable or threatening in school. It determines treatment in courtrooms, treatment by police,” he said. “The media has to paint a true picture of society.”
The situation spotlights an underlying fear of black men in the U.S., Robinson said. But after so many incidents of unarmed black men being killed because the shooter felt threatened, he said it is people of color who should be afraid.
“I remember vividly a conversation I had with my father before I went off to college about the ongoing test that each of us would have to face because of who we are. Blacks in America should feel threatened by the state that we’re in,” he said.
Kelley echoed that, saying he was raised to constantly demonstrate his innocence when out in public because he is African-American — for example, by keeping his hands out of his pockets in stores and addressing police officers respectfully.
On Aug. 5, police shot dead another unarmed black man, 22-year-old John Crawford, in an Oregon Walmart because he was holding an air rifle being sold in the toy section.
Crawford reportedly said, “It’s not real,” before police yelled, “Get on the ground,” and shots were fired.
The same day, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun-control advocacy group, shared photos of men — none of whom were African-American — carrying semiautomatic rifles in the baby section of a Target store.
The men, some from gun rights group Open Carry Texas, said they were asserting their constitutional right to carry guns in public. Some wonder if they would have survived such an action if they were black.
“Any white person can walk around with a shotgun, and no one looks twice,” Kelley said. “Put a whole bunch of black men with guns walking on the streets — that won’t happen.”
He said African-Americans are largely aware that many people perceive them as threatening and have adapted to that reality.
“One of the saddest things about Brown’s murder was the extent to which these young people are so articulate about the language of police activity,” he said. “They understood what was appropriate behavior, saying ‘He had his hands up.’ They didn’t learn that from watching television. It’s because they have to deal with the police and save their own lives every day.”
“They know they are a potential body count,” Kelley said.