The myth of the Black violent, crack addict has resurfaced.
The New York Times recently ran an article on Tyrone Howard, a 30-year-old Black man who allegedly killed a police officer. According to the article, Howard managed to win “relief from a legal system more primed than ever to look for alternatives to incarceration,” despite his drug-dealing, crack-addicted, crime-filled history and tenuous upbringing by a single-parent, crackhead mother. He escaped the wrath of the prison system that has claimed the lives of over a million Black people and the paper is unabashedly discontented by this fact.
Now I am not trying to make the claim that reporting the news isn’t important. This man killed a police officer and that is indisputably tragic. He also endangered the lives of children and members of his community. He was a murderer, a drug addict and a drug dealer. However, that does not excuse the New York Times from the implications of printing this particular piece at this particular moment, when the national discourse surrounding police brutality and mass incarceration has come to a critical junction. It also does not make the blatant racism in the piece any more palatable.
The tale of the Black crack baby and violent crackhead was used in the past to scare the life out of Whites and derail the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. The media painted crack as “an epidemic” that would essentially destroy Black babies and render Blacks useless and violent. Those predictions never panned out and such trends were never revealed. However, borne of that fear, legislation– the war on crime and drugs– was passed that resulted in what we have come to understand as mass incarceration.
But this piece goes even further than simply preying fears. It outright undermines the Black struggle against America’s unjust legal system by stating Howard, ” decided to stand his ground in the East River Houses”, while attempting to evade police officers. To put this into context, only a couple of years ago, George Zimmerman was tried for the murder of Trayvon Martin and acquitted of that murder by evoking Florida’s “stand your ground” law. The law came under much scrutiny and elicited a national debate, launching the phrase into the public consciousness. In spite of this, The New York Times felt it necessary to evoke the phrase (which has been connected to the unfair struggle faced by Black people against a racist legal/judicial system) in a piece that utilized the very same tropes and stereotypes that made Black people vulnerable to such inequality and indecency in the first place. George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin because of the very stereotypes found in the New York Times piece. Yet somehow they did not find this entirely problematic?
At this point, we should expect nothing better from the New York based newspaper, or New York City in general, with regard to the way it will broach the subject of violence between police and the Black community. Only a few months ago, the media ran with the story of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a Brooklyn man who killed two police officers, painting it as a tale of retaliation for the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, when in reality Brinsley was a man with mental issues who tried to commit suicide on multiple occasions and even shot his girlfriend. The police union blamed Mayor Bill De Blasio for the officers’ murders, because he made statements that protested the deaths of Eric Garner– who was choked in broad daylight in Staten Island– and Michael Brown. Of course, no such blame was shouldered by the police force responsible for taking the lives of Black people. No, no, it’s the people who talk about police brutality who have the problem. Not the actors participating in the system perpetuating it.
Now, we begin to see the birth of a new narrative: Not only is the Black man a drug addict, but he is also a cop killer? He has been given one too many chances by a system that has barely afforded Blacks enough, per the statistics that show Black people get longer sentences compared to Whites for the same crimes? There can be no more detrimental a narrative given the current battle against mass incarceration and police brutality, which have both claimed the lives of far too many Black people.
Responsible reporting requires addressing the circumstances that create the monsters who kill police officers and communicates context for political/social struggles that result from centuries of inequality. Poor reporting resorts to stereotypes and misappropriated phrases like “stand your ground” that have become entangled in the desperate efforts of a people. Sadly, this New York Times article did the latter.
Image Credits: NYT/New York Department of Corrections