Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. She is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nvlevy.

Do Black Lives Matter in Our Community?

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds under Society, Crime, Violence, Politics Updated: August 13, 2014 - 2:46 AM

I'll admit, I had to take a breather after my last post on the crisis facing black boys in Minneapolis Public Schools. It was important for me to take a step back to process the disturbing events that have impacted our community over the last few weeks. For one, there were a number of shootings that occurred in Minneapolis in some of our most economically-impoverished neighborhoods, along with the obligatory outcries to "stop the violence." Then, community activist, Al Flowers was allegedly beaten by an officer in the Minneapolis Police Department in his South Minneapolis home, followed by press conferences and a public outcry for justice. Situations like these are becoming all too common in the Twin Cities and demonstrate the need to move beyond rhetoric and to work towards real, concrete solutions that address root causes of violence and deteriorating police/community relations.

Racial wounds continue to be reopened

On a national level we have had to grapple with the opening and reopening of deep wounds stemming from our unreconciled racial history in the aftermath of the murder of unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by law enforcement.

Indeed, Mike Brown appears to be the latest victim in an unfolding saga of issues at the intersection of race, privilege, power, and perception. The debate on social media surrounding his death is reminiscent of the stinging debate that occurred in the aftermath of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black male teen who was gunned down in a gated community in Florida by a neighborhood watchman. It was said of Trayvon Martin that he was "suspicious" and looked as though he was "up to no good." Negative images of Trayvon were plastered across the media which had the effect of diminishing public empathy for Trayvon and reinforcing the notion that he was a menacing character who got what he deserved. When his killer was acquitted, it seemed to reinforce the deleterious message that black lives don't matter in the USA. This message of the lack of worth of black lives is implicit in many public policy debates, the lack of equity in our social, educational, political, and economic systems, and the uneven ways in which our laws are enforced-- benefiting some and disenfranchising others.

Impact of media portrayals and negative stereotyping

Sadly, time and time again when African Americans become victims of crime, the message is transmitted that their "negative" conduct was the sole contributing factor to their deaths. In such circumstances, even when African Americans are victims, they are often racially stereotyped and negative perceptions about them may be used as a justification for why they were murdered. Mainstream media plays a key role in perpetuating negative stereotypes and images about African Americans in the way that they dress, who their friends are, how they speak, and the neighborhoods in which they reside.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown

In Mike Brown's case, media outlets posted a photo that depicted Mike Brown wearing a sports jersey, headphones, and holding up what looked like a sideways peace sign. The photo of Mike Brown was arguably used to send an implicit message that he was a thug who, though unarmed, was shot because he allegedly fought with police. The media portrayal of Mike Brown set Black Twitter ablaze with a social media campaign denouncing racial stereotypes and negative media portrayals through the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, Which picture would these use? The hashtag was replete with images of African Americans posing in attire such as military uniforms, suits, casual clothing or in graduation gowns juxtaposed next to pictures in which they could be depicted as gangsters or thugs by the media. In other words, if any of the individuals were shot, they are calling the question as to how they might be portrayed in the media as a way of justifying their murder. Posted below is my own example of two images of me taken at different times that could be interpreted by the public in different ways. These images provide an illustrative example of how a simple change in appearance could potentially be used to justify harm being done to me as a so-called threat to public safety: (Never mind the fact that I asked my daughter to take the first picture of me for this blog post and the fact that the “bandana” around my mouth is actually a scarf that goes with my business suits. The t-shirt I am wearing is in protest of GangNet, a gang database that was used to racially profile thousands of people of color in Minnesota. The second photo is of me speaking at the Convening on Racial Equity that recently occurred in Minneapolis by the Governmental Alliance on Race and Equity.)

As you can see from the photos above, it is easy to make judgments about a person's character based upon the way that they look and dress and how they might be depicted in a photo. These preconceived notions and stereotypes become dangerous when they are used to justify maltreatment or harm of a person or a group of persons in our society. Unfortunately, scores of young African American men (and in some cases women) have been murdered as a result of racial stereotypes and negative assumptions about their character on the basis of how they looked and dressed.

Young black men die slow deaths in this country

More commonly, young African American men are forced to die a slow death when they routinely experience racial discrimination, are denied equal access to a quality education, healthcare, and access to employment opportunities that pay a living wage. These young men are also disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and marginalized within our society. Sadly, most of us have been conditioned to turn a blind eye to their plight and we attempt to look at individual circumstances, rather than the collective impacts of historical trauma and structural and institutional racism on their ability to thrive. In essence, the daily dehumanizing treatment that black men and boys experience does not often make headlines, but has the cumulative effect of robbing them of a decent quality of life and serving as visible reminders of the badges and incidents of slavery that have never been abolished.

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