From Rodney King to Ferguson: Covering US Racism as an Event

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From Rodney King to Ferguson: Covering US Racism as an Event

Video footage of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angelese police officers in 1991 sparked widespread public outrage, but did it really lead to a deeper and more complete understanding of how race operates in modern society? (Image: Public domain)

While following events in Ferguson on Twitter, I noticed a small-but-steady stream of tweets from African-Americans irritated by users who were suggesting that, because there was police militarization and the use of excessive (and deadly) force against citizens and journalists, Ferguson was now like Gaza, Iraq or other international trouble-spots. These citizens were not irritated because they found the comparisons to be unfair, they were irritated because they felt these comparisons suggested that the use of excessive force was somehow new or unusual. For these users, the US had not become this way…it has always been this way. To suggest otherwise was to view the events in Ferguson in a social and historical vacuum, divorced from the everyday realities facing African-Americans resulting from generations of structural discrimination.

These were powerful observations.

Our view of the politics of everyday life is often obscured by an excessive media focus on events and individuals rather than on structures and long-term social processes. This is a broad statement, I know, but I think it holds. Events and individuals are media-friendly. They are easily packaged, built up, sexed up and torn down. Events and individuals are also excellent when searching for explanations, excuses, scapegoats or heroes. Life becomes simple this way. Wars are battles between good and Evil. Poverty is the result of individual failure. Crime is a question of individual responsibility. Politics is a battle of individual will. Racism is personal prejudice. Looting is a breakdown of law and order.

Context, history and structure would only muddy these unnaturally clear waters.

Unfortunately, events and individuals are often our only touchstones for understanding much larger, complex, long-term structural issues. And this is a problem. I can no more understand the true functioning of US politics by watching coverage of a Presidential debate (or even an entire election) than I can understand structural racism in the US by watching coverage of the 1991 beating of Rodney King or the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Of course, I can bear witness to the results of structural prejudice and inequality by watching these events, and I can get a sense of how that prejudice and inequality is a viscous circle.

What is lost in sporadic event-based coverage, however, is the everydayness of racism in the US (or anywhere, for that matter), and this is the point made by the Twitter users I mentioned at the start of this piece. A full accounting of how such prejudice permeates society requires constant attention and explanation, and a focus upon the things that make everyday life difficult for many citizens in the US: housing discrimination, job discrimination, subtle racism in the form of looks and comments, and overt racism in the form of police harassment or media invisibility — things that white Americans rarely experience. And, not to forget the long-term implications of practices such as the death penalty and “3 Strikes” laws upon how minorities in the US have little trust that their system of justice is blind.

This isn’t a critique of all of the journalism coming out of Ferguson — some of which is excellent — but it is rather a critique of journalism in general.

Take Iraq as another case. Prior to 9/11, what did people know about US relations with Iraq and Afghanistan? Or about US politics in the region? Very little. Then, starting in 2003 we were absolutely saturated with media coverage from Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were good journalists doing good reporting during the invasion and occupation. But, after the countless television hours and acres of paper used, can we honestly say that people in the US have even a basic grasp of the social, political and economic implications of an operation that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians? Or why the US even went to war to begin with?

In the same way, if race and racism are only discussed in relation to widely-mediated stories such as Ferguson, the Los Angeles riots or the O.J. Simpson trial, then they also become isolated. When an issue as fundamental to society as racism is routinely addressed only during periodic upheaval, then we weaken the links between that upheaval and everyday history, making it an event we just cover…and then move on.

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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