Smile Politely

The kid next door

I picked up the January 13th edition of the News-Gazette on my way into my office, and as I did, this picture jumped out at me from the front page headline story

Is this arrest for a 2014 murder news? Yes.

Is it reasonable for news outlets carrying a story on it? Absolutely.

Did the police do an admirable job of investigation and arrest (with apparently no violence)? Yes, and I appreciate a job well done.

The problem with the reporting on this — not singling out the News Gazette — is pervasive among print, TV, and even internet news. The problem is that as soon as I saw the picture, rolled up, in plastic, such that the headline was not legible — I said to myself “This must be a shooting or gang story, there’s no other way a newspaper would feature a young African-American man on the front page.”

Unfortunately, I was right.

When I made the presumption about the story’s content, I made it out of skepticism toward the bias of mainstream culture and news reporting. I’m white. I’m totally establishment to all appearances — farm family, small town, high school athlete, successful businessman. In all too many of those circles, I know first-hand that many, perhaps most, of those I know in those circles would make the same presumption I did when seeing that picture: “…must be a shooting or gang story.” But that presumption would have come from an entirely different and entirely unhealthy place. A place that is built on only seeing young African American men in connection with pictures and stories like this.

I closed the door to my office and cried for a while when all of this hit me. Because our family includes five kids adopted as teens, pre-teens, and toddlers. African American kids. As a result of the headline this morning and untold others like it, someone will look at my 19-year-old son differently today. My son — the hard-working, always pleasant and ready to help anyone, state champion runner, frequent volunteer at local non-profits — the one who makes everyone (who takes the time to know him) happier, the one who’s birthday is today (so I guess he’s 20 now) — will be viewed as an object of fear and violence because of this story and the ongoing bias in the portrayal of young African-American men.

When we see the pictures of the young white rapist, it’s not a mugshot. It’s his high school yearbook photo in his country club blazer. And we think, “that could be the kid next door — he can’t be a real threat to anyone”. Until we all see today’s picture (or a picture of my son) on the front page and all think, “that could be the kid next door…” nothing is going to change. And we will never think “that could be the kid next door” until there is a kid that looks like that next door.

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