Framing and Unframing Prejudice

My Response to a so-called Heartwarming and Hopeful Photo


My initial reaction to the now famous image of the Sgt. Barnum hugging twelve year old Devonte Hart was probably much the same as everyone else’s. Finally, something good, something hopeful, emerged from the dust of this horrible tragedy. It’s a perfect photo at the perfect time, after all. It’s exactly what we wanted to see. Healing.

Unfortunately, it isn’t what we need to see.

What we need to see is infinitely more complex and insidious. What we need to see is something that cannot be fixed with a hug.

First, Ferguson and now the Garner case and the multiple instances in which African Americans are victimized by those charged with the task of protecting us from the victimizers have gained notoriety in the press. It’s not like this race and class based oppression is anything new. It has simply gotten a voice by an active and angry community and a press that understands that, at least for now, this story sells advertising space.

On the other hand, it is part of the media’s latent function to support the status quo, to allow the foundations of privileged society to be shaken only enough to perpetuate the legitimacy of the press, but not enough to threaten the legitimacy of its elite patrons.

So, yes, the press reports on this issue, but at the same time does everything it can to turn our attention from the real issues, the true, damning reality that ours is still an oppressive, racist, exploitative and barbarically tribal society and that the victims of this barbarism cannot be kept down forever. Nor can they be pacified with a hug. So the press simplifies the story, frames it as a conflict between a man who happens to be white and a man who happens to be black…who may have had it coming to him anyway. Yes, Michael Brown was unarmed and shot dead because, as Officer Wilson admitted, he was big and scary. Cut to the video of Michael Brown being really big and scary, stealing little cigars from a store. Look at him. A big, black man pushing around that little store owner.

Sure, protestors are in the streets, facing a militarized police force, demanding redress, demanding justice. But look, here are some of the protestors looting a store! Look at the burning police car. How are the police supposed to protect us if stuff like this is allowed to happen?

Oh, look over here. Here’s a white person that was victimized by a black person. Yes, the black person was arrested and convicted and, because he’s black, received the highest possible sentence and will, because he’s black, more likely serve his sentence in full, and will, because he’s black, be subject to more stringent discipline while incarcerated, but never mind that. The point is that white people are victimized too, but you don’t see us rioting in the streets.

And don’t forget black-on-black crime. Nobody’s talking about black-on-black crime.

Now, look at this picture of a cop hugging a little black boy. See. Not all cops are bad. How unfair it is to condemn all police for the actions of a few bad apples. A few bad apples who will never even come to trial for their bad apple actions, but I’m sure there’s something else to look at.

In fact, look here and there and everywhere. But whatever you do, don’t look at the larger, more entrenched, more complicated issues. Keep buying our papers, but don’t take what is revealed too seriously. Let us, the fourth estate, do the thinking for you. Here’s a nice, feel good, picture.

Ironically, the larger issues are revealed by a closer, narrower examination of this now iconic image. Take a closer look at Devonte Hart. Look into his eyes. That’s where the story is. I’m sure that Sgt. Barnum is a nice guy and a good cop. Kudos to him for the role he has played. But the truth of this image is in the eyes of a twelve year old kid—a twelve year old black kid, because, let’s face it, it is imponderable that we would see this image, this expression, in this context, on a twelve year old white kid. Outside of the racial context, this image is meaningless. It is the fear, the hopelessness the uncertain yearning for security and stability mingled in the tears of Devonte Hart that is the real story.

The protests, the anger, the riots, the social anomie that is the outgrowth, is not about Michael Brown, or Eric Garner or any of a number of individual victims who have suddenly become newsworthy. It’s not about good cops or bad cops.

The real story, the story we need to see is that represented in the eyes of Devonte Hart. This is where race and class intersect with exploitation and oppression. Where prejudice and racism is incorporated into our social institutions, integrated into our perceptions through generations of social learning, the result will always be the construction and legitimization of the victimizer’s actions toward his victims. The norms that guide our behaviors are the result of hundreds of years of history and social processes. Officer Wilson’s interactions with Michael Brown were almost foreordained. A white cop, ingrained with the knowledge that his authority is to be respected, that black skinned suspects must be put in their place. A black male, knowing that he cannot expect justice from the police, must negotiate a tenuous sense of self and manhood between  conflicting and ubiquitous fear and anger. A community, wanting for economic and political justice, understanding that the police, the elected officials, the so-called justice system, does not exist for their protection. The badges and the guns are there to protect communities that matter, white communities, wealthy communities, from “those people”. If that means a de facto death sentence for shop-lifting, or for just being big and black and scary for that matter, so be it. The result is another black man, laying in the street, police bullets invading his body.

No more! We will take this no more!

Respect law and order despite the incessant disrespect that the law shows for you?

No more!

Protest peacefully despite never living a day in peace?

No more!

So when we look into Devonte Hart’s eyes, we must recognize that he is looking into his own future. We must try to see what he sees, and understand that there is more to this story than a cop hugging a boy or a victim slain. This is the story of oppression, exploitation, the systematic targeting of a community and the theft of Devonte Hart’s future.

That is the real story revealed in this image.

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