Why Do Black Americans Have To Be Described As ‘Unarmed’?

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While reading or watching most news stories about incidents such as the Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd killings, headlines and opening comments typically begin by describing the victim as “unarmed.” This has also been the case for much of the reporting done on the shooting of Jacob Blake and countless others. This distinction is typically made to signal to white readers and viewers that the victim was undeserving of the excessive force that was inflicted upon them. Essentially, to elicit compassion and sympathy.

Many have argued that having a gun or being under the influence of a substance does not give law enforcement carte blanche to shot or kill Black people. While true, perhaps, the larger issue is that journalists and others feel the need to make the distinction of being armed versus unarmed in the first place and how that may be telling of a larger issue rooted in anti-Black racism, racial bias, and dangerous stereotypes that exist about Black people in America. Although it can be argued that having a weapon or not being fully compliant with police – alone — is not grounds to be killed or shot, that perspective in silo does not fully capture the magnitude and depth of a much larger and more insidious issue at play.

To be fair, members of law enforcement have a difficult job and place their lives at risk every time they begin their shift. Which is why many have been trained to shoot – to not only to subdue — but to kill. Although potentially problematic, the true issue might not only rest in police training or other dismissive excuses that are used to justify excessive force toward Blacks. Perhaps, the best use of time and energy would be to explore the bias that rests at the root of many of these issues.

In May, Poynter searched NPR’s archive and found that the news outlet used the phrase “unarmed” to describe Black people who were shot or killed by police 82 times in the past five years –26 times in its headlines and 65 times since the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. But it makes sense why this is done. The phrase is used as coded language to express to the reader that the victim did not pose a threat to police and that they were unjustly shot or killed. There have been countless times when this has played out to the contrary in which the killing of Blacks such as Trayford Pellerin and Anthony McClain by law enforcement, have been justified with even the slightest threat of them being armed. 

This poses a few questions. Are white individuals who have been shot or killed by law enforcement described using the same language and why is this important information for the public? More importantly, why would someone at home watching the news or reading about an incident in which a Black person was shot or killed by police immediately wonder, “What was the Black person doing that caused the white or non-Black officer to shoot them?” At the core of American psychology is the inaccurate assumption that Black people are more likely to be dangerous or to carry out criminal activity. Consequently, the issue is not if the Black person who was shot or killed was armed, but instead the immediate default to assume that they were unless otherwise informed. 

The criminalization of Black Americans in film and popular culture has been well documented. The same trends of negative stereotypes and racist and sexist tropes of Blacks are now also sprinkled throughout social media. Whether it be through the overrepresentation of Blacks playing a villain, antagonist, or a flat out criminal in film and television or the lack of diversity in the representation of Blacks playing notable roles that are deemed acceptable or “good” by U.S. norms and standards. There’s also the overrepresentation of Blacks in the news. A study that was conducted by Media Matters found that between August 18 and December 13, 2014, local New York stations (WCBS, WNBC, WABC, and WNYW) reported on murder, theft, and assault cases in which Blacks were the suspect during their late-night broadcast disproportionately to the rate of actual arrests made of Blacks for those crimes.

However, the New York City Police Department reported that Blacks were suspects in 55% of thefts, 54 % of murders, and 49% of assaults. Yet, Black suspects made up 84% of their theft stories, 73% of their assault stories, and 74% of their murder stories.  Consistent images that infer specific personality traits or characteristics of groups of people can be dangerous and re-enforce stereotypes and bias. When most people think about racism and bias, they often immediately defer to overt behaviors in which a person of color is called a racial slur or physically attacked. But covert and more subtle forms of bias exist and can be just as harmful.

Everyone has unconcious biases about other people that can impact their behavior. The Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for The Study of Race and Ethnicity defines implicit bias as, “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” These beliefs and assumptions, although subconscious and unknown, can impact behaviors, thoughts, and interactions just as much as conscious biases that a person is aware of.  Similar to how explicit biases are formed, implicit biases are largely shaped by the images and messages that we receive – both directly and indirectly – about other people. These can be messages that a person does not necessarily agree with, but that still impacts how they view groups of people that differ from themselves. This is just one of the many problematic and dangerous consequences of inaccurate stereotypes and generalizations which depict Blacks as angry, violent, lazy, overly sexed, dangerous, and untrustworthy. 

This issue can be conceptualized as having a cold. When sick with a cold or flu, a person might have symptoms that include coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose. After taking over the counter medication those symptoms may subside, but before long the medication will no longer be effective, and the symptoms will begin to present again until a second dose of cold medicine is taken. But, why? The root of the issue – the virus — is still present in the body. While cold medicine can be taken for a person to feel better temporarily until the core issue – the virus – is addressed the symptoms will continue to re-emerge.

So it is with police brutality and excessive force. Yes, it can be argued that some form of police reform is needed. Police reform can encompass a multitude of issues to include changes in training, protocol, and funding. But police brutality and excessive force targeted toward Blacks, although highly problematic and many times (sadly) deadly – is only a symptom of a much larger issue. Researchers suggest that members of the Black community will continue to experience these horrific incidents as long as Flintstone Vitamins are being used to treat the Bubonic Plague. That is, until we address the core reason why some police might be inclined to shot or kill a Black person without question or why a white person might inaccurately assume a Black person to be armed and/or dangerous — history will continue to repeat itself. Police brutality is not the issue. AntiBlack racism is.

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