Media Representation & Police Killings of African Americans

By Hannah Lee, Kendall Bradley, and Habib Khadri

https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trayvon-martin-s-birthday-we-remember-his-life-why-we-ncna844711

Over the past ten years, police killings have pervaded American media, along with the ensuing riots and protests that have shaken the nation awake to police brutality in the United States. This shared experience of death among the American public has shaped the way our nation confronts the intersection of death, race, and justice. The increase in publicity around police killings, which disproportionately implicate the black community, has also led the public to consider what death communicates about life itself. In order to more closely study the impact of police killings, we will be using the lives and deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner to examine the personal intricacies, as well as the public phenomenon, of the killings of these men and boys.

However, in order to fully understand the context of the recent and widely publicized police killings, we must understand the data and evidence behind what has become a cultural movement and moment. While it seems almost a given to pair the topic of police killings with the conversation around race and racism in the United States, this link has not always been made in the American schema. Therefore, we will investigate the statistical reality surrounding police killings and their connections to race, looking at the relationships between perpetrators’ races and victims’ races. Furthermore, we will investigate the psychology behind these race relations and the neurological circumstances that the officers in question underwent during their respective confrontations.

Looking first at the entire pool of data, it was reported that 1,166 people were killed by a police officer in 2018, following the previous trend of American police officers killing approximately 1,000 civilians per year. [1] In the past five years, many research studies sought to break down the demographics of these slain civilians. As of 2018, the data said that a black individual is three times as likely to be killed by a police officer as a white individual. [2] To look at it from another angle, black individuals are dying at a rate of 7.2 per one million people due to police violence, while white individuals are dying at a rate of 2.9 people per one million.[3] Furthermore, the sheer number of years lost at the hands of officers tends to be far higher among men of color than white men, as the average man of color killed by a police officer is much younger at the time of his death. [4] In addition, 32% of black victims were unarmed when killed, while only 16% of the white victims were unarmed. [5]

The recent events of police shootings have led many groups and individuals to statistically evaluate the presence of racism in these occurrences. One measure of this phenomenon comes by examining the number of people of color’s deaths at the hands of police officers as well as understanding the circumstances under which they were killed, such as being armed versus being unarmed. Other studies have evaluated the situation scientifically by studying the psychology behind these occurrences, specifically examining the behavior of police officers. Social psychological research has pointed to the implicit bias of police officers as one cause of racial ties to police killings. [6] The high-risk situations that police officers are potentially facing in many of these cases trigger what researcher Daniel Mears defines as “fast thinking” in decision-making. [7] Decisions made from “fast thinking” are made often without conscious thought processes. Thus, personal bias, such as subconscious racial prejudice, can take hold when a police officer is deciding whether or not to shoot. Other studies also point to fatigue and fear as conditions which can exaggerate implicit racial bias by making it more difficult to slow down “fast thinking”. [8] These findings, along with several other studies, have provided evidence that racial bias is a likely cause of the disproportionate number of young black men targeted in police shootings.

While all of this data is crucial and has been painstakingly gathered, it is also important to note that data surrounding police shootings is incredibly hard to procure and compile into official data sets. Many organizations and investigators groups have undertaken data collection, but official data sets are difficult to confirm. Thus, the above information must be further contextualized by layering stories and fragments of cultural happenings on top of the statistics themselves. Understanding this data enables us to move forward with a foundation on which to comprehend and interpret the topic of police shootings in recent media and pop culture. Such information gives us a lens with which to see the works put out by artists and news outlets, knowing that there is factual evidence behind that which we can be tempted to view as subjective due to our personal and emotional associations with the topic.

Nevertheless, since the percentages, ratios, and statistics listed above could never fully quantify the gravity of human life, it is vital to examine cultural receptions of these tragic events. In the present age, media is a key means of creating, transmitting, and augmenting culture. The things depicted in national media are the things we thereby consume, and that which we consume visually and auditorily informs what we think about, talk about, and believe about the world. In short, media does not just report on the world around us, but it also drastically influences the very way we understand it. In light of this reality, it is crucial to examine music, movies, and TV shows as pieces and representations of culture.

Music is a particularly salient contributor to culture, as it is the means of media with which we simply clock the most hours. It has grown increasingly common among black rap and hip-hop artists to include allusions to police brutality in their music. In his single “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” artist YG laments that officers’ abuse of power can have devastating effects. “Y’all badge don’t mean y’all got the right to take one of my n****’s lives,” his song declares. [9] This misuse of power is the linchpin of the black music community’s commentaries; it is not only a key cause of police violence, but is also a key factor in sentencing and punishment practices. For example, officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for fatally shooting Ferguson’s 18-year-old Michael Brown. In part, this is because the law is set up in such a way that makes it difficult to charge police officers. [10] Since officers are permitted to shoot in defense of their own life or another person’s, or to prevent a suspected violent felon from getting away, [11] there is considerable room for officers to take liberties and remain protected by the law. These liberties have grieved many artists of color, including R&B artist Miguel who sings wearily, “I’m tired of human lives turned into hashtags and prayer hands/I’m tired of watching these murderers get off.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/03/19/hands-up-dont-shoot-did-not-happen-in-ferguson/?utm_term=.349d653d9615

These representations in music are critical to understanding the very birth of the Black Lives Matter movement itself, since music is a major means of connecting personal and collective identities with broader societal themes. [12] Black artists’ discussions of police brutality in their music serves to connect individual African-Americans to the re-established black community, even with many familial undertones. [13] This reality is evidenced by the familial language black artists often use in referencing black men slain by police officers; phrases like “my brothers,” “the boys,” and “our people” allude to a notion of sameness that is fundamentally shared across the black community. This level of connection is absolutely integral to a contextual understanding of American police killings. The black community has all but had to come together in order to cope with the brutal ways this issue has hit too close to home. Without media representations like rap and hip-hop songs, the American public may not have such an intimate window into the heartbreak that the black community has widely taken ownership over. Excluding media and culture from the conversation would provide only a vacuous and superficial understanding of a complex, personal issue.

That said, music isn’t the only cultural acknowledgment of police violence in the modern day. TV shows like Blue Bloods, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and Scandal have also taken turns highlighting instances of police brutality in their respective programs. [14] A 2015 article in The Guardian unpacks Scandal’s depiction of a racially charged shooting, calling it “a gripping…slice of TV as timely as it was hard-hitting.” [15] This article highlights a key piece of what we expect from the media we consume: we want the ostensibly realistic media we absorb to actually reflect our daily lives. When shows that occupy realistic spaces don’t actually depict the harsh realities we know to be true in those spaces, we tend to be frustrated with the producers for their lack of courage. Shows like Scandal and the others listed provide us with the solace that we’re looking for—they show us a world that looks like ours not just nominally or superficially, but that genuinely depicts the hard pieces of life that we face each day. The fact that these shows and many others have taken the step to highlight this particular issue is culturally significant; it reveals that at least, the police brutality conversation matters to the American people and thus to those who seek to represent it, and at most, we have reached a vital crossroads where we as a culture refuse to accept anything less than 100% participation in speaking out against racial injustice. Though the reality is likely somewhere in the middle, this paradigm itself indicates some semblance of cultural progress, even if tragic cases continue to surface faster than we can properly mourn them.

Amandla Stenberg, the young actress who portrays Starr Carter in 2018’s “The Hate U Give” acknowledges these media representations herself in a Washington Post article. She says that the film seeks to be “open and candid and multidimensional” in the way it postulates blackness. [16] The movie has been acclaimed for its potent depiction of a black high school student being killed by a white police officer, particularly because of the incisive insights Starr provides throughout the film. To her white boyfriend’s claim that he “doesn’t see color,” Starr replies, “then you don’t see me.” [17] This concise and yet poignant remark further underscores the necessity of only engaging in the police violence conversation through a lens of race. A lens of race is the reality, so to explore the topic through anything less is a disservice. The Hate U Give’s cultural significance extends beyond depicting a narrative that we have recently seen in news media; it deeply and inextricably links race to conversations around police brutality by providing an in-depth analysis of Khalil’s death. The gravity of this link cannot be lost on us.

In sum, media representations of police brutality have grown integral to our culture. Though elevating black voices in this conversation is valuable, the fact remains that representations differ hugely depending on who authors them and for whom they create this content. Thus, it is vital to also investigate the ethical angle of this topic to round out our understanding of police violence in American media.

Pervasive police killings of black Americans undoubtedly stem from the continued racial tensions rooted in socioeconomic inequality between members of the black and white communities. For this reason, various ethical considerations arise from this tension, and individuals begin to scrutinize not only the conditions that justify police force, but the true intentions of police officers involved. Both of these considerations are intertwined under an overarching question: how do we establish a balance that ensures both police safety and the preservation of the well-being of disadvantaged community members, specifically members of minority communities? As this issue gains popularity, it is the media portrayal of this conflict that allows individuals to receive insight on the specifics concerning cases of police brutality that ultimately lead to the death of community members.

https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/basketball/nets/lebron-wear-breathe-tees-nets-cavs-article-1.2038414

In 2014, the death of Eric Garner stirred various communities around the United States and became a viral example of police brutality against African-American communities. This became the forefront of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. [18] The copious amount of media coverage of the case was imperative in publicizing and popularizing the movement as a whole. Celebrities around the world and specifically athletes in the NBA voiced their opinions on the matter with t-shirts that contained the message, “I can’t breathe,” which were the last words of Eric Garner. These actions by influencers instigated the conversation regarding the relationship between race and police brutality between everyday people and individuals who typically don’t involve themselves in conversations around racially motivated disparities. An ethical concern that arose out of this particular statement was that the “I can’t breathe” statement would devolve into a fashion statement and that meanwhile, the true issues associated with the Eric Garner case would be lost. [19] Americans saw a growing supply of merchandise associated with Eric Garner that was initially released to spread awareness, but later became simply a fashion statement. Activists were concerned that the message behind the merchandise would be lost in our consumerist society, and that with the continued cycle of police brutality, we would only grow more desensitized to the gravity of these killings through these initially positive acts by influencers.

The Black Lives Matter movement is also concerned with racially biased police officers possessing weapons and using them in situations where it is unnecessary. [20] Cases like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin provide invoke a conversation surrounding gun control amongst police officers. If officers are not meant to be sovereign citizens, why are they able to carry weapons and direct them at civilians with minimal repercussions? [21] It also places a responsibility upon officials to determine the intent of these police officers during the high-intensity situations they are placed in. It is very difficult to empathize with officers during situations where emotions are running high, and determining what is classified as excessive force can only truly be determined by individuals at the scene. Ethical concerns associated with exploring this potential option would prove to place officers at a disadvantage in these situations and lead to them fearing their lives even more. [22]

When tragic police killings occur in our communities, the impact rapidly spreads throughout our society due to the efficiency of our enhanced news networks. [23] The families of the individuals involved in the killings are of course affected, but so are the millions of people who turn on their TVs or open up Twitter on their phones to learn about the issue. While it is beneficial to our society for communities to be informed of issues that affect them, a major downfall of the rapid spread of news is the bias and ethical concerns that the media catalyzes. Due to the buzz regarding the killings, many people might breach ethical courtesies and try to profit from merchandise or coverage to publicize the event, rather than respectfully commemorating those lost. Furthermore, the bias in the media prevents the true intentions of the officers involved from being revealed, painting them in either an undeserved positive light or an equally undeserved negative light. Both of these ethical concerns, the commercialization of victims and the uncertainty of officer intention, threaten the preservation of police safety and marginalized communities.

In conclusion, the rise of both racially charged police brutality and media representations thereof in the United States have forced Americans to grapple with one chilling question: does our nation truly believe that black lives matter? By examining the lives, deaths, and legacies of several black men in recent history, we have been able to see some positive media coverage and some potentially problematic trends that linger. Above all, of course, we still face a tragic cycle of police violence that has devastating effects on individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole. By engaging with the media around us thoughtfully, we can begin to form a view on police killings that is informed by scientific, cultural, and ethical realities, and we can thereby continue to affect positive change in our respective spheres of influence.

 

[1]Nibras, Nadir. “US Police Killings: What the Data Tells Us.” Towards Data Science. December 04, 2018. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://towardsdatascience.com/us-police-killings-what-the-data-tells-us-563f8b052452.

[2]”Mapping Police Violence.” Mapping Police Violence. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/.

[3]”The Lives of People of Color Are More Likely to Be Cut Short by Police.” NBCNews.com. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/police-killings-hit-people-color-hardest-study-finds-n872086.

[4]Ibid.

[5]”Mapping Police Violence.” https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/.

[6]Mears, Daniel P., Miltonette O. Craig, Eric A. Stewart, and Patricia Y. Warren. “Thinking Fast, Not Slow: How Cognitive Biases May Contribute to Racial Disparities in the Use of Force in Police-citizen Encounters.” Journal of Criminal Justice53 (2017): 12-24. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2017.09.001.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Correll, Joshua, Sean M. Hudson, Steffanie Guillermo, and Debbie S. Ma. “The Police Officers Dilemma: A Decade of Research on Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass8, no. 5 (2014): 201-13. doi:10.1111/spc3.12099.

[9]”YG – Police Get Away Wit Murder.” Genius. June 14, 2016. Accessed April 01, 2019. https://genius.com/Yg-police-get-away-wit-murder-lyrics.

[10]Lind, Dara. “Why Darren Wilson Wasn’t Charged for Killing Michael Brown.” Vox. November 25, 2014. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://www.vox.com/2014/11/24/7175967/darren-wilson-charges-michael-brown-ferguson.

[11]Ibid.

[12]”Political Rap: The Music of Oppositional Resistance.” Taylor & Francis. Accessed April 03, 2019. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00380237.2006.10571281.

[13]Ibid.

[14]”12 Shows That Tackled Police Brutality on Prime Time TV.” The Community for Black Creativity and News. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://blavity.com/12-shows-that-tackle-police-brutality.

[15]Ferguson, LaToya. “Scandal’s Police Brutality Episode Was TV Wish Fulfillment Writ Large.” The Guardian. March 06, 2015. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/mar/06/scandal-police-brutality-episode-lawn-chair-shonda-rhimes-wish-fulfillment.

[16]CBS News. “Common and Amandla Stenberg on Tackling the Nuances of “blackness” in “The Hate U Give”.” CBS News. October 05, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/common-and-amandla-stenberg-on-tackling-the-nuances-of-blackness-in-the-hate-u-give/.

[17]”The Hate U Give.” IMDb. October 19, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5580266/.

[18]Video, TIME. “Know Right Now: NBA Stars Protest The Eric Garner Decision.” Time. December 10, 2014. Accessed April 09, 2019. http://time.com/3627924/know-right-now-nba-lebron-james-eric-garner/.

[19]Littlefield, Bill. “‘I Can’t Breathe’ Protests Reach Pro Sports.” ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Protests Reach Pro Sports | Only A Game. December 13, 2014. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2014/12/13/nba-protest-brown-garner.

[20]Koebler, Jason. “The Legal and Ethical Ramifications of Letting Police Kill Suspects With Robots.” Motherboard. July 09, 2016. Accessed April 05, 2019. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/8q8m93/dallas-shooting-bomb-robot-legal-analysis.

[21]Morgan, J. Tom. “Opinion: In Police Shootings: Legality, Morality and Ethics Are Not the Same.” Ajc. September 21, 2017. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.ajc.com/news/opinion/opinion-police-shootings-legality-morality-and-ethics-are-not-the-same/ZRhtsdUhavPAvVMo1k0TQL/.

[22]”Is the Media to Blame for Police Brutality?” The Prindle Post. April 17, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019. https://www.prindlepost.org/2018/04/is-media-to-blame-for-police-brutality/.

[23]Ibid.

12 Comments

  1. I also researched police shootings, and many of our ideas line up. Specifically, I really like your comment that “fast thinking in decision-making, therefore personal bias, such as subconscious racial prejudice can determine whether they decide to shoot or not”. My research also proved this underlying bias towards people of color. When I observed this idea cross-culturally, it is still prevalent. In Europe, South America, and other places, the police officers also have prejudices towards darker skinned people when it relates to “danger, sketchiness, or crime”. I think it is very interesting that you all focused on the media representation of the police killings, because I believe that is the primary source that has made these killings such a prominent issue is the media. I think it is a very controversial issue relating to whether or not the media is a good or bad thing. You did a very good job highlighting both sides. I just wonder if “black lives matter” would be as widespread if the media didn’t portray it in the way it does. I think it all depends on the particular situation because sometimes the police officers need to be punished when they aren’t but also there are times when police officers are portrayed so negatively when it really was an accident or self-defense.

  2. This was a very well written post that was cohesive throughout with sufficient evidence provided. I think the media definitely has played a role in spreading the concern around “Black Lives Matter.” Just last night on social media, I watched a video of police shooting an unarmed couple in their car. Often, I think if there is a side that we don’t know; the point of view of the police officers. Nevertheless, the issue is that the officers use their firearms to freely and should get training on when and what situation calls for them pulling out their guns. Such display of violence is contributing to the hidden anger on both sides of the controversy. Also, I believe that when blacks are approached by officers, they should be extra cautious and show kindness so the situation does not get out of hand even when they are innocent. One thing I liked about this post is that it covered all aspects of media, from songs, TV, and social media. One thing that was missing was photo captions which could have helped with understanding what was happening in the photo.

  3. Many people focus on the public news media as the means for spreading word to the public of the real-life racism and brutality, but I was very interested when music instead was brought into consideration. It is a good question to think about—if there weren’t such references in mainstream music, would there really be that many children that don’t know what is happening in their own nation? Just today there was a walkout/demonstration about police brutality and racism. Such peaceful protests do get social media attention, and especially us college students must realize everything that is happening around us. However, I do believe that there may be some ramifications from such uncensored and brutal representations. As stated in The Impact of Police Killings on the Mental Health of African American Males, stress and fear are thus amplified and widespread. PTSD in others can be intensified. Not that I don’t believe that full media coverage is beneficial to inform the ignorant, but it may prompt anxieties that otherwise would not have been present.

  4. Your post incorporates significant data behind police brutality very well. Your post emphasizes the crucial role media plays on your topic. While researching for my topic, I learned how media truly impact the perspective we gain as an audience. I think your post does a great job listing the way media portray police brutality. Media helps bring attention to essential societal problems. I think the media plays a crucial role in depicting stereotypes about African Americans. Thus, fueling subconscious racial prejudices as mention in your post. Great job on presenting a cohesive piece on a topic that prevalent in our society.

  5. This was a very intriguing article to a still prevalent matter. I was extremely shocked to see that a total of 1,166 people have been killed by police officers. Although the media displays some of the killings and injustices, I would have never thought that such a large number of people have been killed. It was also interesting to see how the police are defined as “fast thinking” without fully evaluating situations. In my Sociology class, my professor recently mentioned how when it comes to races, police tend to second guess the intentions of African Americans; however, they trust the instincts of white races. The Black Lives Matter campaign is one that I strongly advocate for, and it was nice to see how well you guys represented it in your article. I was also never aware of how many songs and TV shows were devoted to police brutality. It’s nice to see that the they are finding ways to bring awareness to the racial injustices. Have the increase in TV shows/ media representation led to a decrease in police brutality over the years?

  6. This post was not exactly what I was expecting, but I loved you guy’s take on this issue. The inclusion of the issue of police brutality in media and pop culture was my favorite aspect of the post.

    Although Black Lives Matter was touched on, I would like to have learned more about the different views of the organization. In the United States, there are many opposing opinions and views about the group. I would love to have seen a perspective from those who disapprove of the group, why they disapprove, and how this divide came to be. It would also be interesting to debunk some popular misconceptions about the group. Overall, I just feel like more could have been said about the BLM movement. Regardless, I still did enjoy your article and appreciate the interesting information that was provided.

  7. I really enjoyed your post on police killings and how the media is involved in this. I think it’s incredibly important to think about how we have been trained to view people and create stereotypes about them. For example, a lot of people have bias towards others, whether explicit or implicit. Without realizing that we all have implicit biases that create a negative stereotype for others, we may fall into the trap of thinking that we don’t necessarily contribute to the problem. A question from this post that I would have is this: how do we fix this problem? Is there a way to reconstruct how we are socialized to view stereotypes? I find problems in fixing this because the way we learn can often be done on an individual level through parenting. However, I think it is important for social groups to raise awareness of issues like this that are going on and get a conversation started, even if change is slow and incremental. Thanks for the post!

  8. This post was extremely well written and did a great job of touching on all three areas (scientific, cultural, ethical) while still being cohesive. This post is also super relevant to what our nation is experiencing today. Police killings of unarmed African American men are unfortunately always on the news as well as they ways in which communities and people choose to protest. I think it would have been interesting and relevant to touch on Colin Kaepernick and how his stance on the issue has been covered by the media.

  9. I really found this article interesting as it tied into my article. We did the effect of police killings on the mental health of African Americans whereas you guys did the media representation. As you guys mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact it has through media, we also saw the need to raise more awareness of it. It is interesting to see how media representation has any effect on the actual problem of killings, but the questions arise, “is the representation really accomplishing anything or is just fashion”? Also referencing the representation through music is really interesting as I am a big fan of music and seeing how that representation actually makes a difference in the problem of homicide. Overall, this article was very cohesive and very informative in terms of homicide and its representation in media.

  10. I found it very interesting that there is some sort of twisted feedback loop when it comes to the killing of people of color by police officers. This issue has been focused on a lot recently, mostly through media and other forms of connecting with other people. From reading your article, I think it would be safe to say that this issue is a true issue that must be fixed for the well being of individuals and different cultures and social groups. That being said, social media and other platforms do seem to exaggerate the issue to be a bit more troublesome and having a stronger correlation than it actually does by only covering cases that support the fact that there is this difference so that people start to feel more tense and more afraid of police officers. This, in return, causes police to be tenser as well and more likely to think too quickly and pull the trigger on someone due to the fact that they feel just as threatened as these victims might feel when they are stopped or confronted by the police. I feel that social media does highlight this problem so that people are able to recognize that there is an actual issue, but it does dramatize and exaggerate in a way that people who are more skeptical of the issue would push away from the evidence that is presented and therefore making it harder for society to come to a conclusion and therefore a solution to this problem that is police brutality and killing of innocent men, women, and even children. In this sense, social media actually does more harm than good in trying to mend society together into a cohesive unit and actually polarizes the different sides of society when it comes to racial equality and racism through people mostly posting and sending out emotionally charged messages that mask the evidence and hard facts with dramatizations and emotional bias.

  11. This post was very cohesive and well-written. I especially found the inclusion of how music and television shows impact this issue to be incredibly interesting. I think it would also be important to analyze media reports of various news networks and assess the similarities and differences based off of the characteristics of the source (political affiliations, national vs local level, etc). This could lead to the identification of trends in how the issue of police killings of African Americans is viewed, which would allow for conclusions about American culture that could be changed and improved upon in the future. I also thought the ways in which these movements (such as Black Lives Matter) could potentially be exploited was interesting, possibly made into a consumer and merchandise-driven movement that could lose its meaning. How can this be prevented, while still gathering enough attention and momentum for the movement to be effective in the long run?

  12. I enjoyed reading you all’s post about police brutality. I think this is a very serious and current issue and research is much needed in order to fully understand what is going on. The way y’all talked about how the media plays its role in the situation. I wish there were more answers to how we could approach this problem as a society. How could we challenge the views of police officers who think twice about the intentions of African Americans? How can we use the media t spread awareness of the issue without it creating stereotypes of African Americans? Are there views held by BlackLivesMatter Movement that other people are opposed of? I also liked that you all mentioned music and its role in this situation. Overall, great job.

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