— Africa is a Country (@AfricasaCountry) August 25, 2014
“Throughout history, the powers of single Black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world rightly gauged their brightness.”
—W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
New York Times journalist John Eligon has come under intense scrutiny after he published a profile of slain Missouri teen Mike Brown in which he declared he was “no angel.” Several reports have since been published critical of this description. This report from Vox is of particular significance as it exposes some of the persistent double standards that have long been a part of American media discourse when it comes to how they treat white killers as compared to Black victims.
But more troubling than this one line is the overall theme of Eligon’s piece. As the Columbia Journalism Review aptly noted in their critique of the piece, “Given the circumstances, it’s an easy jump to suggesting that Brown is at least partly responsible for his fate.” This phenomenon of victim blaming, what MIT professor John Tirman calls “victim derogation”, is a central aspect of how Black people, particularly young Black men, are viewed within the US. A simple Google query shows just how pernicious this worldview is. Below are photographs of what Google autofills when one types in the names of three highly recognizable Black teenagers slain by white men followed by the word “was.” The results are revealing as they are instructive:
Notice that each of the Black victims, with the exception of Mike Brown, who shares the name of a NBA coach, is described as a “thug.” The fact that there is no information to substantiate these claims is of little importance. The mere fact that they were Black and male suffices. In contrast, when one carries out a Google query using the names of white killers the results are radically different. Here are the results when one types in the names Jared Loughner, Timothy McVeigh, and James Holmes:
Strikingly, two of these well-known killers are described as “heroes” despite the fact that they did nothing heroic. Other names of white killers produce similar results. For example, the Sikh Temple killer and Neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page is also a “hero” along with the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik.
As transparent as this double standard is, some still stand by Eligon’s article. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan described Eligon’s report as “solid and thorough.” The limit of her critique was that perhaps the timing of the publication was “not ideal” and the choice of words was “a blunder”, a severe understatement. Meanwhile, Eligon attempted to defend his choice by saying his profile of Brown was a “mostly positive picture”, sharply conflicting with CJR’s observation (which I find more accurate) that “the posthumous profile [focused] overwhelmingly on [Brown’s] personal problems.” Indeed, Eligon focused so singularly on Mike Brown’s “problems” that he mentioned his alleged drug use twice without adding any new information.
In the fifth paragraph he acknowledges that Brown “dabbled in drugs and alcohol.” Then, in the third to last paragraph, he repeats exactly the same point, writing “[Brown] occasionally smoked marijuana and drank alcohol, according to friends.” Perhaps this can be attributed to poor editing or a lack of proofreading, but the effect indisputably elevates this particular claim about Brown over and above some of the more “positive” traits. And the New York Times national editor Allison Mitchell only worsened the official response, assuring readers “There was certainly no hint that this poor young man should have been shot” (note the condescending choice of words: “poor young man”).
Aside from these claims, I personally received a message from the New York Times Labor Correspondent Steven Greenhouse. After posting a Tweet that Eligon’s profile was “the best” he had read of Mike Brown I responded that his statement was “disappointing” and “shameful.” Greenhouse then reinforced his previous assertion, saying that he appreciated the profile because he thought it was “a smart, sympathetic profile that captured whole person, warts & all.” Additionally, “It showed he did well despite huge obstacles.” Quite apart from Greenhouse’s characterization, Eligon’s piece was not “smart” or “sympathetic.”
@Xav711–I thought it was a smart, sympathetic profile that captured whole person, warts & all. It showed he did well despite huge obstacles
— Steven Greenhouse (@greenhousenyt) August 25, 2014
If we are to be honest, Eligon’s profile perpetuated some of the most toxic stereotypes about Black people—violent, marijuana smokers, “vulgar”, thieves, academically below average—in a way that most would find utterly appalling were it applied to someone with power. It’s worth noting the New York Times is the same newspaper that took years to begin calling the crime against humanity that is torture “torture.” But when a young Black man is ruthlessly murdered by a white police officer it only takes a few weeks before he is very matter-of-factly described as “no angel.” Whether conscious or not (I think it’s conscious) this double standard nurtures deeply ingrained prejudices which allow atrocities like the Mike Brown murder to continue with impunity.
Perhaps this is why in a recent study it was revealed that whites generally felt that the Mike Brown investigation was “going fine.” According to a poll published in Vox “there is a huge racial gap in the public’s perception of events in Ferguson.” While 52% of white respondents expressed a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of “confidence” in the Mike Brown shooting investigation only 18% of Black respondents held this view. More revealingly, while 65% of Black respondents said the police in Ferguson “went too far” in their response to the popular protests only 33% of white respondents held this view.
These results are not accidental, but they are the rational outcome of a media industry that systematically undervalues Black life as dispensable or criminally suspect. Interestingly, this is the same ideology at work in Israel-Palestine. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu falsely condemned Hamas for using “telegenic” corpses he was attempting to undermine any sympathy for Palestinians. The New York Times, and other media outlets, produce these degrading profiles of Black victims for the same reason. Just in case anyone had the unacceptable thought that Mike Brown’s life mattered, it was necessary to remind readers he was “no angel.”
It’s difficult to conceive of a journalistic decision more insidious than this because not only does it advance bigoted views, but the bigotry is being directed at someone who cannot even defend themselves. It has become the norm that when dealing with the murder of young Black men and women at the hands of white vigilantes and cops the victim must die twice. First their physical person is killed and then, with equal venom, it’s necessary to kill their character. This was done to Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Oscar Grant and many others. Consequently, the legal convention of “presumption of innocence” is revised for Black victims. For Black victims there’s a presumption of guilt. One’s innocence must be proven.
Margaret Sullivan may prefer to disingenuously refer to this character assassination of Mike Brown as a “blunder”—incidentally, this is the same soft language used to describe the illegal invasion of Iraq—but for those who have been condemned to suffer the cruelty of this system, a system thoroughly permeated with myths of white supremacy and Black inferiority, a different characterization comes to mind. The great sociologist and revolutionary W.E.B. Dubois articulated the predicament of Black people in America in devastatingly precise terms. In his seminal text The Souls of Black Folk he states “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge this double self into a better and truer self.” Dubois then presciently adds “he simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
Now that Mike Brown has had “the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face” the Newspaper of Record has taken up the ignoble task of “cursing” and “spitting” on him. This is how imperial societies eulogize the unpeople trapped within their internal colonies and the New York Times has graphically demonstrated how the colonizers will exert their authority over their subjects everywhere, even into the grave.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois