On March 18, 2015, Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents arrested Martese Johnson Charlottesville, Virginia. Johnson was charged with obstruction of justice without force, public intoxication and public swearing (BBC News). The ABC stated that their agents observed a situation and approached to control it (BBC News). However, the actions of the ABC agents were not so ‘controlled’. Images can be found on social media that display Johnson covered in blood and being tackled to the ground by the white ABC agents. Bystanders say that there was no need to be forceful with Johnson as he was fully complying with the agents (BBC News).
Johnson’s arrest has received much media attention because of the present systemic racism. Systemic racism occurs when society is structured to automatically advantage some groups, while disadvantaging others (Alexander 186). Student protesters who are demanding justice for Johnson’s arrest claim that this was simply another example of the white supremacy – the belief that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds – that exists in the United States (Alexander 186). Johnson’s supporters are not the first to identify explicit racism used by authoritative groups. Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin are just three names out of hundreds of black people that have been brutally harassed or fatally beat or shot within recent years.
Although systemic racism reveals that racism is structured into our society, it does not necessarily expose how or why it has become so ‘normal’ in our society. Hegemonic theory argues that the media manipulates and persuades viewers to beliefs that the current status quo is the best possibility, or even the only possibility (Aulette and Wittner 431). The media does this through legitimation. Legitimation involves creating an ideology or set of beliefs that explains and justifies existing social structures (Aulette and Wittner 412). It also occurs because the public believes that this source of information is legitimate (Aulette and Wittner 412). Some media outlets have portrayed Johnson, as well as the other black men previously mentioned, to ‘clearly’ be at fault because of their ‘aggressive intentions’ or the ‘suspicion of holding weapons’ or their ‘incompliance with the authorities’. The media completely kick starts a racist perspective on reports of criminal cases.
Stuart Hall presents a different perspective on racism in the media. His reception theory states that audiences are not passive receivers of media, but rather they engage in media and give their own meaning to the material being received (Aulette and Wittner 431). Each person reinterprets what the media delivers based on their systems of representation. The first system is a set of mental representations that allow us to interpret meaning in our experiences (Tolmie, Week 11 Lecture). The second is language, which constructs the meaning because we make connections between certain words, sounds, or images with certain concepts or ideas (Tolmie, Week 11 Lecture). The language used in the media has negatively stereotyped black persons, which has reinforced a negative perception of black persons within everyday experiences.
The reoccurring situation of white authorities unnecessarily hurting black persons is completely connected to the representation of black persons in the media. The language that is used in news reports pictures black persons to be dangerous, untrustworthy, and negatively intentioned therefore justifying white authorities to assert dominance over black persons. Although Virginia Governor McAuliffe has asked the secretary of public safety to initiate an independent investigation into the police force, it is not often that authorities are questioned on their practices (BBC News). Because of this, there needs to be a systemic change in the structure of the discourse that our society uses. I believe that the media is one of the most powerful tools in our modern society. It is easy for media outlets to use white supremacy to legitimize their news reports, but we cannot let them take the easy way out. If we do, we will be reinforcing racist perspectives within our society, and I believe even allowing innocent people to be dehumanized and unfairly convicted.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
Aulette, Judy Root, and Judith G. Wittner. Gendered Worlds. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Tolmie, Jane. Lecture. Queens University. March 26. 2015.
“Virginia Govenor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest”. BBCNews. BBC News, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.