by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University – Scholarship in Action
After a recent drive-by shooting involving two teens in Chicago, a CBS affiliate (WBBM) decided to engage in some good old fashioned racist black male stereotyping. The station interviewed a four year-old boy to ask him what he thought about the violence in the neighborhood, and ended up completely misrepresenting the child in the process.
Here is a transcription of the conversation with the boy that the network aired.
Boy: "I’m not scared of nothing."
Reporter: "When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?"
Reporter: "No? What are you going to do when you get older?"
Boy: "I’m going to have me a gun!"
The anchor ended the story by saying, "that was scary indeed."
The problem with the station’s depiction is that the boy’s words were taken completely out of context. The boy mentioned that he wanted a gun, not because his preschool had taught him to become a gang banger. Instead, he wanted the gun because he was planning to become a police officer.
So, similar to the racial disease that infects the images and outcomes of millions of other black boys in America, the media had turned a law abiding four year old into a menace to society before he’d even learned how to read.
After realizing what they’d done, WBBM issued an apology:
We accept responsibility for the mistakes that were made, both in the reporting and editing of the story. The video of the child should not have aired. As soon as news management identified the problem, they took immediate steps to ensure that the video would not air in subsequent newscasts. In addition, we have followed up with our employees to make sure that we all have learned from the mistakes that were made.
It’s easy to overlook this incident as a simple mistake, but it’s much deeper than we might think. The image of the African American male as a lazy, violent, ignorant animal is one that is held by millions of people across America (many of them being black males themselves). We hear music on the radio where corporate America has paid some black man to brag about how many other black men he shot last week, we deal with school teachers who suspend us for even looking at them the wrong way, and we confront employers who don’t give us the time of day when we show up for job interviews with our Masters degrees in tow. The stress is both exhausting and irritating, building exactly the kind of angry black man that the system is designed to create.
Even more challenging is the frustration that millions of educated, hard working, law abiding black men feel when the world typecasts us as being less than human. This little boy is already growing up in a city, Chicago, where a brilliant and hard-working man by the name of Rev. Jeremiah Wright had his 40-year legacy crippled by a Fox News sound bite that presented him to be the kind of unpatriotic, hateful black man that Fox News loves to present to its audience. In fact, during the week-long tirade that Bill O’Reilly conducted to get me fired from Syracuse University, the host was skillful in making the audience fear me by simply presenting an image of me not smiling into the camera.
The little boy in this story has a bright future ahead of him full of infinite possibility. But already, his vast potential is being threatened by the social cage being built around him by those whose minds remain enslaved by racism. That is one of the great tragedies of America and if all of us don’t take time to consciously reflect on the magnitude of this issue, we will continue to destroy the futures of our children.