Jan 1 1998

Criminal Communities

'Racial dualism' puts white supremacy in the media crime frame

“It is a crisis of staggering proportions.” So says ABC News‘ Ted Koppel at the beginning of a Nightline segment (8/27/97) on the most recent of a series of reports on the alarmingly high—and rising—numbersof African-Americans under the control of the criminal justice system. (See The Sentencing Project’s “Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System”—1990, 1995—and “Intended and Unintended Consequences: State Racial Disparities in Imprisonment”—1997.)

The segment opens with George Washington University professor Paul Butler stating that “one out of three young African-American men is under criminal justice supervision.” In voice-over, Koppel asks if the statistics “reflect reality,” while an unidentified male states, “the reality is that, unfortunately, a disproportionate number of black men are involved in crime.” Then Koppel counters, “Or is there something wrong with the system?” And putting the question to his viewers: “Tonight, America in black and white—what seems fair to you?”

This was not the first time Koppel used this rhetorical device. In an earlier show (Nightline, 9/2/92), he asked his viewers to “listen to the finding of a major new study, and then consider your own reaction as a sort of social Rorschach test.” After Jerome Miller of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives pointed out that in Baltimore, for instance, “56 percent of 18- to 35-year-old African-American males were either in prison, jail, on probation, parole or being sought on warrants on any given day,” Koppel then asks if this suggested that “(a) black men are more inclined to criminal behavior than whites” or that “(b) the criminal justice system is unfairly biased against blacks?” “What,” he asks his viewers, “do you think?”

This “A or B” framing of crime stories can be called “racial dualism”–the juxtaposition of the possibility of bias against African-Americans with the possibility that blacks are inherently criminal. It is not a bias particular to Koppel, for it is prevalent throughout the mainstream media.

It puts forward in earnest a tongue-in-cheek comment made by Mohamadu Jones, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project: “When you go through these prisons, and I’ve been through prisons in 10 states, you are forced to come to one of two conclusions: either that young black men are naturally criminals or that there is something seriously wrong with the system.” (Emerge, 10/1997). But while Jones’ statement was a transparent attempt to contrast what he considered to be the obvious (systemic injustice) with the absurd (the notion of congenital black criminality), the media crime frame of racial dualism airs the absurd and racist notion of congenital black criminality as a legitimate point of view.

Criminal labeling

The labeling of African-American and Latino communities as in some way “criminal” is commonplace. It happens, though, in a variety of ways. Study after study has documented how the mainstream media disproportionately portray the face of crime in America as young and black. (See “Crime in Black and White: The Violent, Scary World of Local News,” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, Vol. 1, No. 3.)

Sometimes mainstream media resort to outright labeling, as in the case of a New York Times article (12/23/92) on the high incidence of street crime arrests in several largely African-American and Latino neighborhoods in New York City. An ominous sub-head within the story read “Predisposition to Crime.” Accompanying the article was a map of New York City featuring the black and Latino neighborhoods in question—under the label “The Criminal Communities.”

But the media crime frame of racial dualism is a more subtle, though no less problematic, operation. For example, in “A Shocking Look at Blacks and Crime” (10/16/95), U.S. News & World Report introduced its account of the 1995 Sentencing Project study with the question, “Are a third of young black men criminals?” Overlaying the “A or B” framing with a “white vs. black” significance, U.S. News proclaimed that “many whites say the statistics merely reflect the fact that a disproportionate number of criminals are young black men,” while “many blacks say the numbers are the product of a legal system that is tilted against them.”

Similarly, coverage of the 1997 Sentencing Project report “Unintended Consequences” in the New York Times (1/30/97) gave further credence to the notion that a lot of black males are just naturally criminals. Times writer Fox Butterfield used the quotes of a professor to say that while “much of the racial disparity in imprisonment” of black males “could be attributed to tougher sentences for crack cocaine favored by black drug users, than for powdered cocaine, favored by whites,” there is the “unhappy truth” that blacks are “arrested disproportionately for violent crimes.” This device was used elsewhere by the Times (10/5/95, 10/8/95, 2/13/96) and conveys the distinct impression that, bias aside, there is still the larger problem of criminal black folk.

The media crime frame of racial dualism sets up a false conflict between a model that explains the high numbers of blacks in the criminal justice system as a result of discrimination and a model that posits “disproportionate” criminality on the part of blacks as a root cause. But the Sentencing Project’s reports cited a variety of causal factors, the principled ones being (1) bias, (2) the continuing overall growth of the criminal justice system, (3) the continuing disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs” on minority populations, (4) the new wave of “get tough” sentencing policies and (5) the continuing difficult circumstances of life for many young people living in low-income urban areas—what the Sentencing Project called the “intersection of race and class effects.” Those who use the frame of racial dualism ignore or minimize these causal factors while mystifying “disproportionality” into racial destiny.

The media frame of racial dualism also reinforces the prevailing “discrimination” model for explaining racism in America: By presenting racism as a matter of individual attitudes and choices, the more important role that structural economic and residential apartheid have played as pillars of white supremacy in the U.S. is missed. Finally, the frame of racial dualism divides black and white into hostile camps, associating whites with one view and blacks with the other—glossing over the fact that many leading critics of black criminalization, including the author of the Sentencing Project reports, are European-Americans.

Interrupted message

Airing the notion of congenital black criminality as a legitimate point of view is much like using the flagrant white supremacy of The Bell Curve as a framework for discussing racial inequality. That the frame of racial dualism suggests an implicit if not explicit endorsement of white supremacist views is evident in Ted Koppel’s response to civil rights scholar/activist Lani Guinier’s comment on Nightline (8/27/97) that the U.S. has “one group of kids who are getting an education and one group of kids who are being tracked to prison.”

Koppel’s response was to say that this dichotomy reflects “the age old question about the cart and the horse and which comes first.” “In other words,” he said, “are these people ending up in prison because they don’t have good schooling? I mean, why are things as they are. . . .”

Curiously, Koppel doesn’t finish his statement as he interrupts his own message. We are left, then, to speculate on the implications of his “logic.” “Are these people ending up in prison because they don’t have good schooling”–or what? Because they’re just criminals anyway? Or is it because their parents are criminals? Or is it just because they are black? Maybe they don’t have good schooling because they’re destined to go to prison anyway! Why are things the way they are, Mr. Koppel?

Unfortunately, mainstream media is the wrong place to go to get answers to such questions. Take the host of Nightline‘s response on yet another facet of the “Black Crime Problem” discussion. The National Center’s Jerome Miller confronted Koppel (Nightline, 9/2/92) with statistics documenting that in Baltimore a total of 86 black youths and 18 white youths were arrested for drug sales in 1980, whereas in 1990 only 13 white kids were arrested while 1,300 black youths were arrested for sale of drugs. Now, according to a 1992 estimate of the U.S. Public Health Service’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 76 percent of illicit drug users in the U.S. were white, 14 percent were black, and 8 percent were Latino. But when Miller confronted Koppel with the data, Koppel’s response was a question of his own. “Let me ask you a very painful, but necessary question,” he said. “Is it that not many white people are selling drugs?”

A “painful” question? Why, one might ask, is this so “painful” for Koppel? Could it be that he is pained at the unhappy task of revealing the “truth” about blacks, a “truth” that is hard to hear, and even harder for him to say, but one that bravely, if gently, must be uttered: the “truth” of black pathology, of black criminality. But Koppel’s paternalistic truth is not true. And thus the response of Miller, who, in a nice turn of the tables, answered, “No. I think a lot of it, incidentally, has to do with the media.”