Why It’s Dangerous When Young Black Men Are Seen as Gangsters, Not Grads

The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag erupts after 'NBC News' publishes 'thuggish' photo of Michael Brown.

Michael Brown. (Photo: Twitter)

Aug 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

On Saturday, police in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old named Michael Brown. Ferguson police say Brown assaulted the officer and went for the officer's gun. Many in the community and several local politicians are skeptical of the department's story.

Brown had been planning to start college classes Monday.

"You took my son away from me," his mother, Lesley McSpadden, told KMOV. "Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don't got nothing to live for anyway. 'They're going to try to take me out anyway.' "

As Brown's death and Ferguson's subsequent community-wide heartbreak became a national news story, NBC News illustrated its report with a photo from Brown's Twitter account. Brown is standing in front of a building, holding up two fingers.

While some people interpreted the gesture as a gang sign,

many criticized NBC News for using the photo out of context.

Particularly when a story concerns a young person—as in Brown's case—social media can provide a treasure trove of images. News organizations have their pick of photos to illustrate stories about violence. Yet too often the media choose images that make victims seem like criminals. If viewers are predisposed to make assumptions about a person based on race, they could easily think the worst of a victim—and may even shrug off injustice if the victim is proven guilty in the court of public opinion before the assailant is even investigated.

We've written about news reports on violence against transgender women that show a victim's old mug shot rather than a more flattering or representative photo. When George Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, many were angry that the media used photos of Martin wearing a grill and holding up his middle fingers to the camera.

At this point, we know few details about Brown's death. Relying on pictures like this one says more about subtle biases against young black men than it does about Brown.

Some on Twitter are challenging stereotypes and calling out these media depictions.

The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag juxtaposes graduation pictures, family photos, and military portraits with tongue-in-cheek images of guys wearing chains and baggy clothes and flashing "gang signs." While the "thuggish" images conform to stereotypes, the portraits and family photos seem much more realistic.