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Media's focus of White supremacy harms Black communities
A response to the Guardian about racial homicide.
While the title of the Guardian article, “Where is safe?”": Gun violence takes a special toll on Black Americans' mental health, is simple to agree with, the piece itself pushes a narrative of racism and white supremacy, which is more apparent in the subtitle: In aftermath of Jacksonville shooting, experts say Black people deal with additional fear and stress of racialized violence. Their claim is summed up as follows:
While all Americans are affected by the threat of gun violence, Black people face an additional fear of being targeted due to white supremacy, which can create intense anxiety and stress.
Here is their data:
The Jacksonville shooting is reminiscent of previous mass killings targeting Black people in recent years. Last May, a white gunman killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store, specifically driving to a Black neighborhood to seek out his victims. In 2015, another white supremacist killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and showed no remorse during court proceedings for the 33 federal charges of which he was convicted.
They refer to the shootings in Buffalo last year and Jacksonville this year before going back eight years to South Carolina. I don't want to downplay these instances, but there are two things that should be noted. First off, the biggest fear a Black person should have is not even close to being shot by a White person. Second, while ignoring the greater issue of Black-on-Black killings, the media is complicit in fostering part of this anxiety.
Homicide by race
The number of homicides by race of victim and perpetrator for 2019 is depicted in Figure 1. This is from the FBI and is the most recent data I can find partitioned this way.
The boxes contain the counts, and the darker the color of the square, the fewer deaths. Asians are included in the other group. A White person killed 246 Black people in 2019 while a Black person killed 2574 Black people. That represents a ten-fold difference. White people are killed by Black people twice as often. For context, 288 Black individuals and 452 White persons were killed by police in 2019. For reference, in 2019, the United States had a population that was roughly 72% White and 12% Black. Figure 2 uses Figure 1's data but presents it in percentages.
We can see that 80% of murders are committed by members of the same race by adding just the White on White and Black on Black squares. If we combine the bottom row, we see that Black people commit 48.9% of all homicides, which is four times more than their population percentage. The bottom left portion of the graph—the 39.1% of murders in the Black community—is where I want to focus. This appears to be a much bigger issue for the Black community than killings committed for racial reasons. You might say, but the racially motivated murders are important too, and I would agree. The issue is that the within-group killings are minimized by the media, which takes me to my second point.
The media is complicit
I'll use the well-researched and thoroughly documented article Perceptions Are Not Reality: What Americans Get Wrong About Police Violence (8/10/2023) from the Manhattan Institute as an illustration of how the media distorts our understanding of society. This essay concentrates on police shootings, but I believe that a similar analysis could be done on how the media focuses on White-on-Black murder while neglecting the overall Black criminal rate and in particular the Black-on-Black rate. In this article, there are two important graphs. The first one is Figure 3.
Concentrate on the purple graph in the bottom middle to better understand the data presented here. The bar indicates how many times the NTY published at least one report on a specific person of a specific race being killed by the police. For instance, there were 40 instances of at least one NYT piece on a specific unarmed Black person killed by the police and 10 articles about a specific unarmed White person killed by the police. The actual number of occurrences is shown by the numbers in the parenthesis below. It is interesting to note that while there were more instances of White people being killed by the police than Black people, the Black individual received four times more media attention. People were then asked to estimate the number of police shootings by race as part of the study. Figure 4 displays these findings.
I’ll let the article explain their Figure 4 (Note: FOIS - fatal officer-involved shootings)
Specifically, according to the Washington Post Police Shootings database, white, black, and Asian Americans, respectively, constituted an average of 51%, 27%, and 2% of racially identified shooting victims during 2015–22. But in the estimation of the average respondent, as found by this survey, white Americans constituted an average of 23% (an underestimate of –28 points), black Americans 54% (+27 points), and Asian Americans 8% (+6 points) of all victims. Further, while respondents across all ideological groups overestimated and underestimated the black and white shares, respectively, liberal respondents did so to a significantly greater degree than conservatives.
Per the Washington Post data, an average of 7% of all FOIS victims—including 6% of white, 10% of black, and 14% of Asian victims—were unarmed when shot and killed by police during 2015–22. The average respondent, however, overshot these benchmarks by 18–34 points, with the largest average overestimates given for black victims (+34). Overestimates were also again greater—generally double in size—among liberal than conservative respondents. For instance, whereas the average conservative estimated that 27% of black victims were unarmed, the average liberal estimated that more than half (53%) were.
This does not establish that the media causes these misconceptions, but it is easy to draw the conclusion that media bias contributes significantly to these misconceptions and affects people's preferences for particular policies. The issue is that if their understanding of the underlying data is incorrect, their preferred policies are probably not going to be helpful. Real issues are overlooked when the media, like The Guardian, concentrates on murders of White people by Black people, even though this only accounts for 10% of all homicides of Black people. In this instance, it is also detrimental to the Black community.
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If you think Figures 1 and 2 use a cherry-picked year, I’m including 2017–2019 data, which was all I easily found, in Figures 5 and 6 below. The numbers and patterns are the same.
The Manhattan Institute article includes an experiment to see if perceptions can change with information. Here is the executive summary for that part of the article. Their work is well done and worth reading.
Part 3 introduces the study’s embedded experimental design, which tests whether correcting survey respondents’ misestimates leads respondents to adjust their perceptions of police brutality and related policy preferences. Encouragingly, the overall findings indicate that receiving correct information significantly reduced inaccurate perceptions of police brutality and racism and increased support for policing-centered, anticrime public policies. These effects were also greatest for liberals and respondents who gave moderate-to-large overestimates, on average.
Part 4 discusses the implications of the study’s findings for news media coverage of police use of force. It proposes recommendations for journalists and argues for the aggressive and frequent use of social media context and fact-checking tools as a means of combating public misperceptions of policing.
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