I wish I could say this headline is a joke, but sadly in the wake of an appalling news story by KSTP 5 last night, it is anything but funny. The news segment, entitled, “Minneapolis Mayor Flashes Gang Sign,” showed a photo of Mayor Hodges and a young black man supposedly throwing up a gang sign. In actuality, she and the young man were just pointing at each other. My eyes could not believe what I was seeing, but not for the reasons one may think. I could not believe that any credible news station in the Twin Cities would produce a segment like the one in question and attempt to pass it off as legitimate news. After the story aired, many in our community took to social media, with the hashtag #pointergate to express their outrage.
Don’t believe the hype
After processing the contents of the story, I thought about the tens of thousands of white Minnesotans who tuned into the news and were served a steady diet of racial stereotypes, innuendoes, and a false narrative about the Mayor and the young African American man standing beside her in the photo. For white Minnesotans who do not personally know any young African American men, it is all too easy to take the media’s word as absolute truth and embrace the negative racial stereotypes that are being perpetuated about the young man in the photo.
I had the privilege of meeting the young man in the photo several months ago at a community meeting. I learned that he has worked hard to reintegrate back into the community by being employed as a canvasser at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) for the past two years. This young man personally knocked on thousands of doors during the election season to help get out the vote and educate community residents about the impacts of felon disenfranchisement in Minnesota.
As a young black man with a criminal history, he has experienced numerous challenges in attempting to successfully reintegrate back into society. Many of those challenges have occurred in his interactions with law enforcement in Minneapolis. He has been handcuffed and detained for things like spitting on the sidewalk and even arrested at a Cub Foods store on the Northside for registering people to vote. Last weekend, this same young man was part of a larger effort to engage in door knocking with members of NOC, the Mayor, and Chief Harteau. The photo in question was taken briefly during that effort.
A Kafkaesque moment
Rather than celebrating the young man’s involvement in civic engagement, the media decided to replay an age-old narrative of stereotyping a young black man from the inner city and branding him as a gang member. Because of the Mayor’s willingness to reach into the community and build connections, she too, was labeled in a similar manner and accused of having gang affiliations. I posit, another reason the Mayor was targeted in the story is the fact that she has demonstrated courage by speaking publicly about much-needed reforms within the Minneapolis Police Department, including the body-cam pilot project that is being rolled out today. Resistance to change comes in many forms, and sadly this is one of the worst examples of such resistance. The young man in the photo was merely a convenient scapegoat for a larger agenda.
The constant portrayal of young black men as gangsters, thugs, and criminals can be seen nearly every night on the news or in newspapers in Minnesota and around the country. Undoubtedly these negative perceptions contributed to the untimely deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis, and countless other victims. The daily replaying of the narrative of blackness as evil, dangerous, and in the case of Mayor Hodges, contagious, has a cumulative effect on the American psyche and permanently warps our perceptions of the “other.” Indeed, nary can many of us walk past a young African American man without a whole host of racial stereotypes, prejudices, and fears coming to the surface.
Negative perceptions of young black men influence laws and policies
One of the problems with negative perceptions of young black men is the fact that such views do not stay contained within individuals, but tend to influence our laws, policies, and our willingness to tolerate police abuse, harassment, and unjust arrests of this segment of the population. In essence, we become desensitized to the dehumanizing treatment of young black men and such treatment becomes par for the course. We forget to see them as real human beings who deserve to be welcomed into the human family and treated with the same level of dignity we have all come to expect. This should be the case even when someone has a criminal history and is looking to reintegrate back into society after paying his or her dues. (After all, 1 in 26 Minnesotans has a criminal history; and studies show that 95% of all prisoners will return home someday.) We cannot perpetually exclude and demonize people who have made their share of mistakes, just as many of us have made our share of mistakes, yet God’s grace has covered us.
We’ve got to fight the powers that be
As people who pride ourselves on being progressive, we must do a better job of building bridges and tearing down racial and socio-economic barriers. We must challenge narratives that constantly portray people of color as being suspicious, engaged in crime, “or up to no good.” We must hold our media outlets accountable for producing stories that are balanced, fair, accurate, and sensible. We must also be willing to use our voices to advocate on behalf of those who are made to feel as though they are outside the human family. Let us not despair. Instead, let us take action to change things for the better.