Much of the writing I do on this blog centers on the concept of controlling images, particularly as they affect Black women. While sociologist Patricia Hill Collins centers on Black women in her book Black Feminist Thought, several scholars assess how controlling images operate in relation to other multiply marginalized groups. Calvin John Smiley and David Fakunle examine how Black men have faced the historical controlling image of “the brute” and how it reemerges in the contemporary controlling image of the thug in a 2016 article for the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment.
Smiley and Fakunle use intersectionality as a framework to identify how the language and imagery of news coverage use cues of behavior, appearance, location, and lifestyle to demonize and criminalize Black male victims of police killings.
Scientific Racism and the Controlling Image of the Brute in the Slavery Era
According to Smiley and Fakunle, scientific racism contributed to how colonial society portrayed Black people, starting with the notion of Black people as buffoons:
> During the institution of slavery, the image of Black people, specifically Black males, was of a docile character. The images of buffoonery, blissful ignorance, and juvenile angst were seen as the primary traits of enslaved Blacks. \ - Smiley and Fakunle (2016:4)
During the 19th century, Blackface and minstrel shows reinforced this imagery as did other portrayals such as the character of Uncle Tom in Uncle Toms’ Cabin, the Mammy in Gone with the Wind, and Uncle Remus in Disney’s Song of the South.
Until after the Civil War, this imagery justified the belief that white society and institutions needed to control Black people. Smiley and Fakunle write that during the Reconstruction Era, the controlling image of the brute emerged in response to white people’s fear that Black people would replace them as they gained economic power and civil liberties. Scientific racism justified the brute image through the characterization of Black men as prone to violence or aggression. The trope pathologized the sexuality of Black men as potential rapists that target white women to justify lynching as vigilante injustice.
The Thug: The Twentieth Century Iteration of the Brute Controlling Image
According to Smiley and Fakunle, the film Birth of a Nation that depicted Black men attacking white women and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes reinforced the controlling image of the brute at the start of the 20th century. By the later 20th century, the brute image had evolved into the thug as a controlling image the government used to justified certain policies. As an example, they highlight how the federal government drew on the “Willie Horton” ad during the War on Drugs.
The Thug Controlling Image in the Twenty-First Centuty
The article addresses that in the twenty-first century, the thug as a contemporary brute controlling image justifies mass incarceration, but also shows up in media. They refer to the 2008 Vogue magazine cover of Lebron James and Gisele Bündchen, which invoked a WWI poster that displays a gorilla with a white woman in their embrace, obviously as a reference to the 1933 King Kong film but also to the dehumanization of Black people as sentient apes.
Smiley and Fakunle argue that the reason why the thug replaced the brute characterization of Black men results from how coded language has replaced more overt expressions of prejudice. To substantiate their argument, they did a content analysis of newspaper articles named Eric Garner; Michael Brown, Jr.; Akai Gurley; Tamir Rice; Tony Robinson; and Freddie Gray. To interpret these findings, they used autoethnography as a method that drew on their own experiences as Black men who had encountered policing and surveillance.
Microaggressions in News Coverage of Unarmed Black Men Killed By Law Enforcement Officers
They draw on the work of Sue et. al,2007 to classify the statements about the aforementioned victims by racial microaggressions, specifically micro-invalidations and micro-insults. They focused on how the journalists wrote about the behavior, appearance, location, and lifestyle of the victims.
In the case of Eric Garner, for example, they found that news coverage invalidated him as a victim due to his body size and claims that his behavior at the time of death reflected his past actions and lifestyle. Physical characteristics, in terms of appearance, also emerged in how the news covered Akai Gurley, as did his home located in an impoverished neighborhood:
> In addition, the theme of continually expressing how violent the Pink Houses are does two things: 1. Again, shift the blame from the officer who did not use proper training tactics and 2. Negates Gurley's death as a victim because he is associated with the Pink Houses which is linked to violence, therefore implicating Gurley as a criminal or violent. The micro-insults and micro-invalidations of Akai Gurley come out in a particular manner of subversive text and imagery to take the focus off the particular case of excessive police violence but rather focus on the physical character and appearance of Gurley and the location and environment of the event. \ - Smiley and Fakunle (2016:14)
The ways coded language facilitates microaggression in news coverage also emerges in the coverage of Tamir Rice, as journalists claimed that children shouldn’t play with toy guys, invalidating the injustice of his death by blaming the victim and his mother, Samaria Rice. News coverage of Tony Robinson, killed in 2016 by a police officer in Madison, Wisconson, invoked the thug controlling image through presumed criminality of the victim. Finally, the article analyzes news coverage of Freddie Gray Jr. who died in police custody in 2015. News stories primed readers to interpret Gray Jr. as a thug through coded language that portrayed him as suspicious and a presumed criminal. They also invalidated him as a victim due to his residence in an impoverished neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland.
Ultimately, Smiley and Fakunle assert that regardless of the intentions of the journalists, the coded language in White-owned newspapers perpetuates racist microaggressions by characterizing Black men victims of police violence as thugs. The media, therefore, has a responsibility to evade bias in reporting on police killings.