Cepeda column: Why does the media ignore when bad things happen to black people?
The irony of the diverse and wide-ranging #neveragain movement to reduce gun violence is that — even as it has captured the nation’s attention — it has underscored racial stereotypes about victims and survivors.
Why did the country have what countless media commentators called “a watershed moment” after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, but not after any of the countless killings of black men and women at the hands of people in their neighborhoods (even when some of those neighbors were law-enforcement officers sworn to serve and protect)?
One answer is pretty straightforward: race.
The student activists who landed on the cover of Time magazine were simply irresistible to a media ecosystem that prizes white, photogenic, media-savvy subjects to fixate upon.
But there’s another aspect of race that fuels a movement like #neveragain, while movements like #BlackLivesMatter are sidelined and elicit backlash: presumed innocence.
The Parkland students were attending school when a “lone wolf” attacked. They were perceived as complete innocents. When they got angry and railed at a system that let them down and violated their sense of security, they were seen as courageous.
But when black people do the same, they are not afforded a presumption of innocence, and they’re not seen as deserving of equal sympathy. Even worse: Their protests are dismissed as troublemaking, not as activism, and so are either portrayed negatively or totally ignored.
“When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, I was 13, and I became an activist,” said Kenidra Woods, a 17-year-old high school student in St. Louis, Missouri. She has been organizing “Hope for Humanity,” an event to connect students of different races and backgrounds and empower them to be better included and represented in the fight to end the epidemic of gun violence.
“I and many other students like me walked out of school, organized marches, made the posters, did community service along with just talking to people about how these issues were affecting people’s daily lives. But no one wanted to hear about it, no one cared,” Woods told me.
She and I connected after Woods lamented on social media that she has consistently hit a wall throughout her years of fighting to put the spotlight on how gun violence affects families, schools and students in black communities.
Lately, when she has been able to get the attention of journalists, they’ve blatantly tried to use her solely to get in touch with Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and other high-profile Parkland students, with whom Woods has been working to organize young people.
“The thing is that when black men get shot, it’s assumed that they were thugs, gangsters, criminals and illiterate people,” Woods told me. “Basically, to me, gun violence is gun violence. But when it happens to black people, it’s seen as normal, as just what happens, so why should anyone have any sympathy? You look around and see that the nation has responded so differently to what happened in Parkland. … It shows that we have to come together somehow, because we are human, too. Why should the color of our skin matter when it comes to media coverage?”
Woods was crystal clear that she does not want to undermine the Parkland students’ work in any way. For Woods, the Parkland students are not the problem — the “March for Our Lives” rally featured a diverse array of speakers, and the Parkland activists themselves are working to put other young people’s stories into the national consciousness.
The problem is that it’s newsworthy when middle-class white students are scared of being shot at school, but blacks’ daily fear of gun violence — at school, in neighborhoods and even at church — is considered so common and ordinary that some in the media seem to think it’s not worth mentioning. This takes a heavy mental toll.
“There have been so many times I wanted to give up, to stop trying to change how things are. In fact, there were so many times that I just remember feeling like being black was a bad thing,” Woods said. “But we’ve had enough, too. It’s not easy, but now I embrace my race and culture and the injustice and adversity that come with it, because I just want black people’s stories to be heard and to get the same attention as when terrible things happen to white people.”
That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.