“The pen is mightier than the sword.” It’s true. Every day I watch as journalists’ pens cut down Black lives.
Last week in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Aaron Tucker skipped the job interview he was traveling to and instead jumped from a city bus to save a stranger from a burning car — only to be referred to as an “ex-con” in a CBS News headline.
Twitter user @steenfox criticized the headline in a viral tweet:
Imagine pulling someone from a fiery crash risking your own life & being called "ex-con." His name is Aaron Tucker. https://t.co/RQgvNosTJm— Read A. Aura (@steenfox) July 15, 2017
Did this headline commit any factual errors? Perhaps not. But what it committed was worse: perpetuation of toxic racial bias.
References like “ex-con” reduce Black folks’ humanity in a way that White subjects rarely experience. Aaron Tucker could have been referred to as “resident,” “young father,” “community hero” or simply “man” to the exact same effect.
I know what you’re about to say: You Googled this story and feel Tucker’s incarceration was relevant. Maybe the headline writer’s goal was to paint a contrast, to show that an “ex-con” still has enough humanity to save a life.
Now ask yourself: Why on earth would we need to prove the humanity of a human being?
The answer is that our system of mass criminalization robs Black folks of their humanity long before they enter a prison cell.
Before we’re even able to talk, America’s system of media, education and culture teaches us that Black people are allegedly predisposed to criminal activity. That’s why it’s not hard to shoot them on sight or to let extrajudicial killings of Black people go unpunished.
This miseducation is why most people in the United States have no issue with the fact that there are currently more African American men in prison than there were enslaved in 1850.
In other words, imagine if we didn’t need to prove the “humanity” of someone like Aaron Tucker.
He probably wouldn’t be an “ex-con.”
Think of it this way: When was the last time you saw Martha Stewart referred to as an “ex-con?”
How often do journalists mention Mark Wahlberg’s and Tim Allen’s prison sentences?
Millions of White folks are arrested and incarcerated each day, yet their mug shots are conspicuously absent from coverage of their criminal acts, or post-prison lives.
Days after tweeting about Aaron Tucker’s daring act of heroism, CBS News posted another tweet:
“Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert released from prison in Minnesota and transferred to a Chicago re-entry facility.”
How likely is it that news outlets will describe Hastert as an “ex-con”?
Not likely at all. He’ll always receive the honorific “Former House speaker” because this is how our media choose to define his life and its value, despite the sex crimes he committed.
What if journalists had regularly referred to George W. Bush as an “ex-con” in the lead-up to his Texas gubernatorial campaign due to his prior conviction for driving under the influence? Would he have had any chance of reaching the highest office in the land?
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered — after all, he is the son of a wealthy and connected White family.
And that’s what this boils down to. Journalists’ pens alone aren’t killing Black lives, but they are contributing to the cycle that marginalizes them from opportunity, justice and equal protection in the United States.
Falling somewhere on the scale between newsroom laziness and outright anti-Blackness, many of today’s journalists use language and practices that actively harm people of color by feeding the racist imagination.
In a 2014 report, the Sentencing Project found that, “White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime committed by African-Americans by 20 to 30 percent.”
It’s terrible that so many White folks perceive people of color this way. It’s downright dangerous when these perceptions are harbored by health-care workers, hiring managers, judges, policymakers and, of course, the police.
In November 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson testified regarding his scuffle with 19-year-old Mike Brown: “When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”
Darren Wilson is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds while Brown was 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds.
The jury accepted Wilson’s portrayal of events, however, and Brown’s murder went unpunished — as do most police killings of unarmed Black people.
Shortly after Brown’s murder, poet Claudia Rankine wrote in her book Citizen:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
It’s true. The pen is far mightier than the sword, not only in the words that it writes but in the stories it tells, the narratives those stories build, and the real world those narratives define.
What will it take for journalists to understand that Black lives are greater than a small portion of their deeds, worthy of the same grace and complexity of perception afforded to those who happen to be White?
When will journalists take responsibility for the way they wield their swords?