Be Wary of Some of These "Viral" Images Coming from Baltimore

by Malaika Jabali

Newspaper stories identified the race of the accused, assumed without question that the accused [Black] person was guilty, used a number of dehumanizing terms to label the Black victim—e.g., ‘wretch,’ ‘fiend,’ and ‘desperado’—[and] assumed the Black person's race predisposed him to commit violent crimes.
The aforementioned quote by Professor Richard Perloff was not written to describe a scene in 2015. When discussing black people accused of crimes and subsequently killed by vigilante racists, Perloff is referring to a period in American news media in the early 1900s, a period when 78% of the country’s lynching victims were black. In the midst of reporting on blacks being victimized by white brutality, news media shifted the narrative to enforce the supposed immutable violence of black people. A century later in 2015, almost nothing has changed.

Our technology has evolved to the point where we can proliferate images of blackness at a rapid fire pace. Whether they be empowering, like the Tumblr-driven #BlackOutDay, or dehumanizing—such as the grim footage of Walter Scott’s death at the hands of a South Carolina cop—the narrative from mainstream media has remained static: Thug. Looter. The new wretch. Fiend. Desperado. For a country that has subsisted off of the blood and labor of others, it sure has a way of projecting a violent mythology onto the oppressed.

So it is disappointing that instead of countering these images, some black people have contributed to their continuation. In the wake of the Baltimore Uprising, through which mostly black demonstrators have released an outpouring of emotions in response to unarmed 25-year-old Freddie Gray mysteriously receiving a spinal cord injury while in the police custody—which led to his death a week later—hundreds of images of Baltimore have dominated news coverage, and much of it has been misleading. Video of black women and men throwing rocks at police officers remain pervasive in the public eye, yet there is little footage of the peaceful protests that had taken place for days leading up to the uprising.

FOX reports on looted liquor stores and “roving gangs” while pictures of charring police vehicles serve as digital smoke signals, calling the masses to merely observe black chaos instead of supporting the cause of thousands of people desperately crying that Black Lives Matter.

Ever more popular is a video of a black mother, Toya Graham, beating up her son for protesting the loss of a fellow young man, whipping him to order and respectability. One can literally Google “angry mom” and nothing else, and at the very top of the search pool is this woman reigning terror on her child. While the footage was captured by a local Baltimore news station, we release it to the masses through our social media accounts as if it is a cheap form of entertainment, no different than the average World Star Hip Hop video.

On one hand, we can understand her sentiment. No one wants to see her child become the next Freddie Gray or Renisha McBride, or Rekia Boyd, as Graham explained for CBS News later once her emotions had cooled off. But no amount of in-home beatdowns will prevent the violence that happens regularly in the streets by racist cops who could care less about anyone’s home training. And instead of taking time to sympathize with the fear behind her lashing, many are immediately gratified by the Angry Black Woman trope and have shared it over and over again. So like Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins, Charles Ramsey, and Antoine Dodson, black pain is passed around for amusement while onlookers snicker. Just give it another week before this sister is meme-ified and remixed to oblivion.

Likewise, when we’re not terrifying folks or accidentally serving up humor, we’re propped up as intentional comedians. News outlets wasted no time picking up the video of a Michael Jackson impersonator doing a “Beat It” eight count in the midst of the protests.

We all enjoy levity. We all know black people are angry and have every right to be. But the issue is: Of all the images that could be captured in Baltimore, why are these images being produced and peddled the most?

By sharing these stilted images of our women and men—either angry, chaotic, and menacing; or meme-friendly buffoons—we are doing the heavy lifting for racist news organizations. The nuance of our pain and emotional variance is lost, and we fall into the same dichotomous patterns established long ago by both news organizations and entertainment media. When we became one step closer to racial progress during Reconstruction, Birth of a Nation edified the lie that our people are essentially violent, subhuman, and stupid. Or after the racial progress of the Civil Rights Movement, when we took another step back as the KKK was reborn in the mid-1900s, perpetuating myths of white supremacy. The War on Poverty provided necessary social policies to combat resistance to civil rights reforms and the Black Power Movement affirmed our beauty and dignity, yet then came Republicans with the welfare queen trope. It is a constant battle, and sharing images reinforcing these stereotypes only lead to chinks in our armor during a time that we most need strength and unity.

Mainstream American media will always have corporate interests in mind, as they have for nearly a century, as they have consistently suppressed labor movements and any resistance to capitalism. And black people acting a fool will always be an economic driver. But media has become increasingly democratized through online journalism, blogging platforms, Twitter, and other new mediums. As long as we have access to this technology, it is in our people’s interest—lest we fall victim to rampant, institutional white violence—to shift that narrative. 

Photo: Jose Luis Magana / AP

Malaika Jabali is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She has a J.D./M.S.W from Columbia University. None of these inordinate number of letters preclude her from communicating with cleverly placed emojis and on Instagram as @missjabali. She also pretends to know about music and culture on her personal blog,

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