As the tearful mists clear of the horrific racially motivated massacre in Buffalo, New York, an insidious insult to injury emerges.
On May 14, Payton S. Gendron, an 18-year-old white man, allegedly shot and killed 10 shoppers at a Buffalo grocery store. The victims were targeted because they were black, according to the police.
Some news outlets and commentators have referred to Gendron as a “teenager,” a “teenager,” and even a “child,” suggesting youth, vulnerability, and someone in need of special attention.
There is no such consideration for black alleged perpetrators, and even victims. Last week, Steven W. Thrasher, assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University, tweeted excerpts from two different Associated Press articles.
“Noting that in the AP copy, 18-year-old Michael Brown (sic) was an ’18-year-old black man,’ while 18-year-old Payton Gendron is a ‘white teenager,'” Thrasher wrote.
In 2014, Michael Brown Jr. was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His death sparked protests across the country and helped inspire the Black Lives Matter movement.
Thrasher added: “The social sciences have been clear on this for a long time: people labeled as black and gendered as male are perceived as older (so killed Mike Brown is a ‘man’, while alleged killer Payton Gendron is a teenager “) .”
In words and images, there is a double standard for people of color, one that privileges the fact that we are “the other”.
A May 16 National Public Radio analysis asked, “Some are calling the Buffalo suspect a ‘teenager.’ Is that a privilege of his race?”
“At least some people who are vaguely college-aged often enjoy the benefits of being seen as young and in need of adult protection – not only by the media, but also by the forces of law. ‘order,” wrote Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR’s culture correspondent.
In 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, brutally shot nine black people while they were attending a Bible study at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Police allegedly bought him a Burger King meal after he was arrested and taken into custody, Tsioulcas noted.
Kyle Rittenhouse, white and 17, shot and killed two people during civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020. Rittenhouse claimed he was there to help protect the property. According to PolitiFact, a video taken 15 minutes before the shooting showed that “police thanked his group for being there and gave them water.
By contrast, writes Tsioulcas, “critics name well-known young black victims killed by police — like 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 23-year-old Elijah McClain — who were given no such consideration.”
Experts call it “adultification bias.”
According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, “Black boys as young as 10 years old may not be seen in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be confused with the older ones, to be perceived as guilty and to face police violence if accused of a crime.
In the 2014 study, the researchers worked with a group of 264 mostly white female undergraduate students from major public universities in the United States. Students were shown photos of white, black, and Latino boys between the ages of 10 and 17, along with descriptions of various crimes, and then asked to rate their age and innocence.
“Students overestimated the age of blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos, especially when boys were associated with serious crimes,” the study showed.
After the Buffalo killings, the AP sent a message to its staff, NPR reported.
“We use the terms male or female for people 18 and over,” it read. “It’s important to be consistent in how we portray people of similar ages. The news media in general has been rightly criticized for sometimes using a male/female to describe an 18 year old black, but a teenager for an 18 year old white. “The 18-year-old” can also work for someone that age of any race. Again, be consistent.
Yet other news outlets continued to refer to Gendron as a “teen” and “teen.”
Words and pictures matter. They can rob the humanity of people of color and fuel the kind of racial hatred we saw in Buffalo, with deadly consequences.
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