“Advocates might want to try different language (or a different approach) in their campaign to reform the criminal justice system,” writes Jamelle Bouie for Slate. She drew her conclusion after summarizing a new pair of studies, by psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt, looking at the relationship between being “tough on crime” and the association of criminality with blackness.
In the first study, 62 White men and women were interrupted as they got off a commuter train and invited to chat about the three strikes law in California. Before being presented with an anti-three strikes petition, they were shown a video that flashed 80 mugshots. In one condition, 25% of the photos were of black people and, in another, 45% of the photos were.
Among the subjects in the first “less black” condition, more than half signed the petition to make the law less strict, but only 28% in the “more black” condition signed it.
A second study in New York City about the stop-and-frisk policy had a similar finding:
The results suggest that white Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black. The second study suggested that this was mediated by fear; the idea of black criminals inspires higher anxiety than that of white criminals, pressing white people to want stronger law enforcement.
So, as Bouie concluded, when prison reformers and anti-racists point out the incredible and disproportionate harm these policies do to black Americans, it may have the opposite of its intended effect. Hetey and Eberhardt conclude:
Many legal advocates and social activists assume that bombarding the public with images and statistics documenting the plight of minorities will motivate people to fight inequality. Our results call this assumption into question. We demonstrated that exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.
“Institutional disparities,” they add, “can be self-perpetuating.” Our history of unfairly targeting and punishing black men more than others now convinces white Americans that we must continue to do so.
In the clip below, James Baldwin powerfully explains why he, as a black man, has no reason to assume that white people care about him and his people.
Responding to Dick Cavett, he says, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”
He goes on to present a devastating list of ways in which American institutions are segregated and biased. He concludes:
Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith — risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children — on some idealization which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.
American divisions over the state of our country’s race relations were brought to the forefront in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s shooting by a Ferguson, MO police officer named Darren Wilson. Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites or Hispanics to say that the killing was part of a broader pattern (source). And blacks are twice as likely as whites to say that race played an important role in Wilson’s decision to shoot (source).
At The Atlantic, Robert Jones argues that these disparate opinions may be caused, in part, by the different life experiences of the typical white and black American. He shows data, from the American Values Survey, indicating that black people are much more likely than whites to report living in communities rife with problems, from a lack of jobs and inadequate school funding to crime and racial tension.
In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people. According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black. Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.
In contrast, the social network of the average black American is 65% black and, among Hispanic Americans, 46% Hispanic.
The average white person’s failure to engage meaningfully with people of color isn’t solely a matter of personal choice, though that is certainly part of it. Nor is it simply a function of the country being majority white, non-Hispanic (but not for long). White insularity is caused, too, by occupational and residential segregation which, in turn, is the result of both individual choices and institutionalized mechanisms that keep black people in poverty and prison.
If we want the people of America to embrace justice, we must make our institutions just.
Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities. The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.
Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform. It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol. It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.” He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:
From Gin & Tacos:
Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.
He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating. And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.
This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity. For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.
On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign. In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.
The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.
For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro. Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people. Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.
This has been a hard week. Another young, unarmed black man was killed by police. The Root added Michael Brown’s face to a slideshow of such incidents, started after a black man named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by officers less than one month ago. This week’s guilty verdict in the trial of the man who shot Renisha McBride left me feeling numb. Nothing good could come of it, but at least I didn’t feel worse.
The shooting of Michael Brown, however, is still undergoing trial by media and the verdict is swayed by the choices made by producers and directors as to how to portray him. When Marc Duggan was killed by police earlier this year, they often featured pictures in which he looked menacing, including ones that had been cropped in ways that enhanced that impression.
Left: Photo of Duggan frequently used by media; right: uncropped photo in which he holds a plaque commemorating his deceased daughter.
As the media coverage of Brown’s death heated up, the image that first circulated of Brown was this:
Reports state that this was his current Facebook profile picture, with the implication that media actors just picked the first or most prominent picture they saw. Or, even, that somehow it’s Brown’s fault that this is the image they used.
Using the image above, though, is not neutrality. At best, it’s laziness; they simply decided not to make a conscious, careful choice. It’s their job to pick a photograph and I don’t know exactly what the guidelines are but “pick the first one you see” or “whatever his Facebook profile pic was on the day he died” is probably not among them.
There are consequential choices to be made. As an example, here are two photos that have circulated since criticism of his portrayal began — the top more obviously sympathetic and the bottom more neutral:
Commenting on this phenomenon, Twitter user @CJ_musick_lawya released two photos of himself, hashtagged with #iftheygunnedmedown, and asked readers which photo they thought media actors would choose.
Top: Wearing a cap and gown with former President Clinton; bottom: in sunglasses posing with a bottle and a microphone.
The juxtaposition brilliantly revealed how easy it is to demonize a person, especially if they are a member of a social group stereotyped as violence-prone, and how important representation is. It caught on and the imagery was repeated to powerful effect. A summary at The Root featured examples like these:
The New York Timesreports that the hashtag has been used more than 168,000 times as of August 12th. I want to believe that conversations like these will educate and put pressure on those with the power to represent black men and all marginalized peoples to make more responsible and thoughtful decisions.
At the end of last year, Robin Thicke took a lot of heat for both the lyrics of his song, Blurred Lines, and the accompanying video. The latter is a transparent instance of a very common strategy for making men look cool: surround them with beautiful and preferably naked women.
It seems especially effective if the men in question act unimpressed and unaffected by, or even disinterested in, the women around them. It’s as if they are trying to say, “I am so accustomed to having access to beautiful, naked women, I don’t even notice that they’re there anymore.” Or, to be more vulgar about it, “I get so much pussy, I’ve become immune.”
This is all to introduce a satirical series of photographs featuring performance artist Nate Hill who, on the mission page of his “trophy scarves” website (NSFW), writes: “I wear white women for status and power.” And, so, he does. Here are some maybe safe-for-work-ish examples:
There are more, definitely NSFW examples, at his site (and thanks to German C. for sending the link).
Hill brilliantly combines a tradition of conspicuous consumption – think mink stoles – with a contemporary matrix of domination in which white women are status symbols for men of all races. It’s not irrelevant that he’s African-American and the women he chooses are white and, yes, it is about power. We know it is because women do it too and, when they do, they use women below them in the racial hierarchy. Remember Gwen Stefani’s harajuku girls? And consider this FHM Philippines cover:
I’m amazed at the ubiquitousness of this type of imagery and our willingness to take it for granted that this is just what our visual landscape looks like. It’s social inequality unapologetically laid bare. We’re used to it.
Somebody — lots of somebodies, I guess — sat around the room and thought, “Yeah, there’s nothing pathetic or problematic about a music video in which absolutely nothing happens except naked women are used to prop up our singer’s masculinity.” The optimist in me wants to think that it’s far too obvious, so much so that the producers and participants would be embarrassed by it. Or, at least, there’d be a modicum of sensitivity to the decades of feminist activism around the sexual objectification of women.
The cynic in me recognizes that white supremacy and the dehumanization of women are alive and well. I’m glad Hill is here to help me laugh about it, even if nervously. Gallows humor, y’all. Sometimes it’s all we got.
by Lauren Kascak with Sayantani DasGupta MD MPH, Jun 18, 2014, at 09:01 am
An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.” The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:
I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.
It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”
I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.
I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.
Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.
How do they attract so many paying volunteers?
Photography is a big part of the answer. Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource. Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.
It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even premeditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most “likes.”
Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.
The Suffering Other
In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.
Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…
…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.
The Self-directed Samaritan
Here we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.
The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?
This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”
Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:
Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.
On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”
The Overseas Selfie
[Photo removed in response to a request from Global Brigades.]
In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:
Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are … In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”
Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.
Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.
In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iphones at home.