On the night of Super Bowl Sunday, football fans took to the streets of Philadelphia after the Eagles pulled off a historic upset in Super Bowl LII, bringing the team their first championship title. However, the fun quickly turned to chaos as fans began to tear through the streets, causing damage in their wake.
Videos surfaced online of out-of-control fans flipping cars, setting fires, vandalizing local businesses and even eating horse feces off the ground — yes, you read that right. In spite of the widespread mayhem that ravaged downtown Philadelphia that Sunday night, for some reason the resulting media reaction has been rather tempered. Fox News classified the riots that destroyed parts of Philadelphia as a “celebration” and “rowdy,” and Newsweek reported that the “raucous celebrations” got “out of hand.”
However, the story is told rather differently when black Americans take to the streets. Blatant and upfront racism has been replaced by a similarly dangerous, but harder to recognize set of racial double-standards. In recent years, Black Lives Matter protesters have frequently been accused of being “thugs” by media outlets, particularly Fox News. The founders of the Black Lives Matter movement like Patrisse Cullors and its members across the nation more generally have been accused of being literal terrorists. However, TV media outlets largely lost their harsh tone when referring to the majority-white Philadelphia rioters with Fox News referring to the latter as “boisterous fans.”
The discrepancy in coverage of predominantly-white and predominantly-black demonstrations is not a new phenomenon. One can point to the many violent riots caused by predominantly-white youth after sporting events and the lack of media response as evidence of prejudice. For example, the Michigan State riots after a loss to Duke in the 1999 NCAA Final Four resulted in over 100 arrests and damage assessments as high as $500,000, and the 2012 University of Kentucky riots saw an estimated 10,000 fans amass in the streets after a win against rival Louisville.
The difference in the way that black protesters and white rioters are characterized in society demonstrates the state of racism in America today. Consider Fox News suggesting that Black Lives Matter is a “murder movement” in 2015 or comparing Charlottesville Neo-Nazis and white supremacists to Black Lives Matter protesters in 2017. The “N-word” has been replaced by the word “thug.” The explicit denouncement of blacks in America as dangerous has been replaced by cloaked insinuations hidden in the statements of news pundits.
In recent years, black Americans have raised questions over the way the mainstream media disproportionately portrays blacks as dangerous or criminalistic. For example, in 2014, media coverage of the infamous police shooting of African American teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked widespread controversy. Young blacks from all over America chimed in to criticize media outlets’ apparent attempts to portray Brown as a malefactor — the media eschewed flattering photos of Brown with family or at his graduation and instead used rough photos of Brown on the street or with his middle finger raised.
These events spurred the “If They Gunned Me Down (What Photo Would They Use)” online campaign in which young black Americans contrasted positive and negative photos of themselves and pondered which ones the media would choose to run should they become victims of police brutality or racially-motivated gun violence. One viral post showed a young woman in a military uniform alongside a picture of her holding a bottle of vodka. Another showed a man in a gold chain and a T-shirt juxtaposed with a picture of him walking across the stage at his graduation.
Similar allegations of racial bias and subsequent public outcry have arisen. Notably, the public has denounced distorted and tasteless coverage in moments like the media investigation of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s private life after his fatal shooting in 2012, which included speculation about Martin’s academic transcript and school record. Another common practice is to refer to black minors like Martin and 12-year-old police shooting victim Tamir Rice as “men” or “adults,” while older white men who committed atrocities such as mass murders and rape — like Dylann Roof, Nikolas Cruz and Brock Turner — are referred to as “boys.” By contrast, the policeman who shot Rice perceived him not as a 12-year-old playing in a park but as a “maybe 20” year old threat, as he described Rice immediately after fatally shooting him. These media practices are poorly veiled attempts to demonize the victims of racially-motivated violence and police brutality, while giving white perpetrators of violence the benefit of the doubt.
Black America needs to keep calling out the racialized media coverage present in this country. The messages that people receive from television and other media surrounding race play an important part in how we interact with society. And as the deaths of Martin and Rice make clear, this distorted coverage has concerning implications for how people of color are viewed in the world. We need to work toward an America where black civil rights protesters aren’t called terrorists and threats to society if white college students destroying cities after a football game are simply “kids” and “boisterous fans.”
Jason Carroll ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.