Thugs. Students. Rioters. Fans: Media’s Subtle Racism in Unrest Coverage

By Akiba Solomon Apr 28, 2015

Whenever black civilians become enraged enough by police violence toward black men to set fires, loot stores and throw things at police in riot gear, I become this old, conservative black lady who asks annoying, clichéd questions like, "Why are they destroying their own neighborhoods?"

I get my faculties back by reviewing how some media describe arson, looting and projectile-throwing by predominantly white crowds. I don’t do this exercise to condemn individual journalists, but the subtle differences in language and context that emerge are just too jarring to ignore. 

Take these excerpts from an April 27, 2015 Associated Press piece that ran in the New York Times called "Riots in Baltimore Over Man’s Death in Police Custody." Keep in mind that Baltimore is predominantly black and most of images of unrest over Freddie Gray show black men in their late teens and early 20s:

Rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos Monday, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers hours after thousands mourned the man who died from a severe spinal injury he suffered in police custody. 

…Earlier Monday, the smell of burned rubber wafted in the air in one neighborhood where youths were looting a liquor store. Police stood still nearby as people drank looted alcohol. Glass and trash littered the streets, and other small fires were scattered about. One person from a church tried to shout something from a megaphone as two cars burned. 

Now, check out how the Times characterized the overwhelmingly white mass of Penn State students who tore up State College, Pa., because they were angry about about Joe Paterno—a leader who stood by as his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, sexually molested boys—getting fired. 

The November 11, 2011 article is titled "Penn State Students Clash With Police in Unrest After Announcement" and describes rioters and their actions: 

After top Penn State officials announced that they had fired Joe Paterno on Wednesday night, thousands of students stormed the downtown area to display their anger and frustration, chanting the former coach’s name, tearing down light poles and overturning a television news van parked along College Avenue.

…The demonstrators congregated outside Penn State’s administration building before stampeding into the tight grid of downtown streets. They turned their ire on a news van, a symbolic gesture that expressed a view held by many: that the news media had exaggerated Mr. Paterno’s role in the scandal surrounding accusations that a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, sexually assaulted young boys.

So in Baltimore, "rioters" and "youths" are "plung[ing] the city into chaos," and drinking liquor they looted. In College Park, "thousands of students" are expressing their anger and making"symbolic gestures" like tipping over news vans.

Let’s try another one—a March 2015 Cleveland Plain Dealer story about that riot that mostly white Ohio State fans had to celebrate the Buckeyes championship win.

The piece, "Columbus police use of force against Ohio State crowds reveals training, communication problems," describes some 8,000 to 9,000 people breaking into the Ohio Stadium, throwing bottles at police, lunging at police, trying to lift police cruisers and setting at least 89 fires. About 200 National Guard members were called in:

Columbus police reported giving differing orders to a crowd of Ohio State fans celebrating January’s championship win before deploying pepper spray and tear gas, according to reports obtained by Northeast Ohio Media Group.

…"The one weakness in our plan, as Generation Xers planning for a Millennials event, was that we did not account for everyone to meet at a central location," stated Sgt. Smith Weir in his report.

…"Monday we were dealing with drunk, happy college kids with a handful of agitators just taking advantage of the situation," Weir wrote.

…Some in the crowd claimed they couldn’t hear the police’s demands to leave, [Commander Christopher D.] Bowling stated [in his report], so he suggested that his department purchase better amplification equipment. …

Compare that to this Associated Press story The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran on January 12, 2012 called "’White Only’ swimming pool sign violated girl’s civil rights, panel says."

...Racial discrimination has particular resonance in Cincinnati, whose population is 45 percent black, far higher than the rest of Ohio, which is about 12 percent black. Surrounding Hamilton County is 26 percent black.

Cincinnati was the scene of race riots in April 2001 when police and demonstrators clashed in a blighted neighborhood following the shooting of a black suspect by police.

A white Cincinnati landlord posts a sign that says "Public Swimming Pool, White Only" at his complex’s pool to bar a black girl from "clouding" the water with her hair products and that’s "discrimination." The April 2001 unrest over a police shooting of a black man amounts to "race riots."

The "racial discrimination has particular resonance" among Cincinnati’s black population. But the purposeful, proudly racist landlord literally takes things back to Jim Crow segregation, but racial discrimination doesn’t resonate with him?

And then, of course, there’s the infamous "who’s a looter?" captions from Hurricane Katrina coverage.

Now I admit that this level of examination does leave me vulnerable to becoming that big-word butchering guy from "In Living Color." 

But at the same time, as my late, beloved aunt Kinyozi Yvette Smalls used to say about 15 times a day: "Words are powerful." 

If they weren’t, everybody would be using same language.