Portrayal of Black Youth Contributes to Racial Tension

Special to Informer | 5/29/2012, 12:43 p.m.

Mainstream media often portray African-American youths, especially black men and boys, as criminals, crime victims and predators. These stereotypes, according to social justice advocates, can create a racially charged atmosphere that results in violence such as the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.

U.S. popular culture has become increasingly desensitized to one-dimensional portrayals of black youths. Perpetuation of them as dangerous has been embedded in American society not only by words and images projected by journalists but also by a wide variety of other media and entertainment sources, including the Internet, movies and video games.

Clearly, the perception of African-Americans and other people of color as inferior to whites is rooted in the nation's legacy of racial hierarchy, a system of stratification based on belief that skin color makes whites superior. Also contributing to embedding these stereotypes is that even as U.S. Census data show a growing number of nonwhites in America, fewer people of color are in decision-making positions at daily newspapers, television and radiostations, and online news organizations.

Media coverage of the February shooting of Martin, 17, in Sanford, Fla., by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, exemplifies negative treatment of black youths in the media. After a controversial delay, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in the unarmed teenager's death.

At the center of the case are issues related to race, gun rights and whether Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.

In most media stories last week, autopsy results showing that Martin's blood had traces of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, overshadowed other new evidence. An Associated Press report from Orlando, Fla., began: "Trayvon Martin had marijuana in his system. He was shot through the heart at close range."

Many of these stories were published with photographs showing cuts and scratches on Zimmerman's face and head. A police report said he"appeared to have a broken and a bloody nose and swelling of his face."

In the same week, an all-white, six-person jury in Houston acquitted Andrew Blomberg, 29, a white police officer, in the alleged beating of 15-year-old Chad Holley after Holley was arrested for burglary in March 2010.

In video footage from a security camera, which jurors were shown in court, Holley was seen falling to the ground after trying to hurdle a police squad car, the AP reported, and was "surrounded by at least five officers, some who appear to kick and hit his head, abdomen and legs."

Blomberg testified that he didn't kick or stomp Holley. Community activists decried the verdict and the racial makeup of the jury.

The presumption of guilt can also apply to young black women. When Rekia Boyd, 22, was fatally shot by an off-duty Chicago police detective in March, her death was overshadowed in mainstream media by the Martin case.

Boyd was with friends on a street near the detective's home when words were apparently exchanged and he fired several shots, one of which struck Boyd in the head. No charges have been filed in the incident. Boyd's family has filed a civil lawsuit against the detective and the city.