The story of James Harris Jackson, a white man who wanted to hunt black men, highlights that the promotion of crime in America is still horribly biased.
Want a reminder that racism is very much alive and well in educated America? Take a look at your favorite mainstream news outlet. Maybe it’s NBC, maybe it’s CNN, or maybe you’re the type that prefers the traditional print. Whatever your choice, if that outlet is covering a breaking murder story or covering a similarly violent crime, you can be certain you will see one of two angles.
The first is the largely objective and “in no way trying to elicit an emotive response from the audience” angle of introducing the suspect in as mundane a manner possible. You might read that they were a “gentleman” or “extremely respectful” of their neighbors—as all good murderers should be. You might even see a few nice photos of them in better times, posing with family or on the way to a school formal. If you’re lucky, you might even get a sorrowful mention of their “bright future” in their chosen sporting career being thrown away and the effect a criminal charge would have on those prospects.
James Harris Jackson may have fatally stabbed a black man with a sword in New York City and lamented that he would have rather killed “a young thug” or “a successful, older black man” he often saw with blondes in hopes of forcing women to reconsider their interracial relationship—but he was a swell guy to live next to.
On the other hand, you might find the second angle, showcasing an extremist at their most extreme.
Where the first option sought to keep the reader as stone-faced as possible, option two feeds off of white-hot rage and irrational fear. You can almost definitely expect to find a long list of prior convictions accompanied by an unflattering mugshot or incriminating selfie found in the depths of the defendant’s MySpace archives. No mention will be made of their efforts to maintain suburban peace or their best times from their budding track and field career. Nor any sight of family, nor friends, nor anyone who has ever even met them.
Suspect number two is as dehumanized as can be, serving no purpose other than the draw condemnation from the audience writ large.
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You may be wondering just how it is that editors decide which option to take. It’s actually quite simple: all you need to do is ask yourself, What race is the suspect? If the answer is white, you’ve got yourself an option one (i.e., the “in no way skewed”) story. If, however, your answer is, well, really anything else at all, head on down to option two—the “absolutely in every way skewed” story.
You can try to justify it any way you want, but you’ll find yourself coming back to the same point every single time: there is a double standard when it comes to reporting crime in the media, a double standard absolutely stemming from racial bias.
For every time you may think the land of the free is advancing towards a brighter future, there is a barely acknowledged tweet mourning another young black man murdered by police hands. For every white-supremacist-turned-mass-murder hailed as being quiet or a good neighbor, there is a Muslim American denounced as an extremist and a terrorist, despite having committed equally evil acts. For every prioritizing of white lives over the lives of people of color, there is an ingraining of racial prejudice and irrational fear in the reader—in society as a whole.
James Harris Jackson (who is an army veteran, as NBC is more than happy to remind us), intended on his killing of 66-year-old Timothy Caughman to be a “practice run” before he killed more black people in New York’s Times Square.
A premeditated act of murder and open admittance of radical views of racial supremacy, and yet the story is buried deep within NBC’s website. Or entirely nonexistent in other outlets.
How is this not a bigger story??? pic.twitter.com/bWOOCG3r6z
— Marcus H. Johnson (@marcushjohnson) March 27, 2017
Dylann Roof murdered 33 black parishioners in the name of racial purity, yet not once was he ever labeled an extremist, nor a terrorist. No, Roof was just “one hateful person” as much as he was “a normal kid,” a “typical American kid,” and a “smart kid.”
Take the races and swap them, however, and you get a very different picture.
Ismaaiyl Brinsley—a black, Muslim American—who shot dead two New York police officers, was labeled a lone wolf Islamic terrorist who was theorized to have links to ISIS. Much of the coverage of his crime focused on his conversion to Islam.
It flies in the face of a supposed world leader and seeks to turn a nation against itself. It tars the very notion of objective reporting and demeans the reader’s intelligence at its every emotive turn. It reduces the audience into a brutal binary. An “us” and “them”—black and white. It tells budding racists that the prejudices they hold are valid, and that they can do no wrong. It feeds the supremacy side of white supremacy and permeates the idea that one race is worth more than another.
It’s all well and good to put on a shiny, progressive face for your social media followers, but it looks more than a little bit hollow when that same face is spewing tales about “criminal thugs” and “typical American kids.” News organizations haven’t printed their papers in black and white for a long time; now it’s time they stopped thinking that way, too.