The last few months have felt eerily like the 1960s.
First, Michael Brown was shot in cold blood with his hands in the air in August. Ferguson police responded to peaceful protesters with teargas and physical assaults, and the National Guard was called in not to protect protesters, but to help the police. Then, video went viral of Eric Garner being strangled to death in broad daylight on a New York street. After Michael’s killer was let off by a largely White grand jury, rioters in Ferguson set a dozen buildings on fire. Then Michael Brown’s father’s church was torched by arsonists. A Black man was found murdered in suspicious circumstances in Ferguson that same night. He was found shot to death, his body burned, in the back of a car. But the murder wasn’t covered by the national news media. Then, news broke of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy’s death in North Carolina: he was found hanging from a swing set in an all-White trailer park. He and his girlfriend, a White woman, had previously received death threats. Ku Klux Klan chapters have been active around the country, holding “pro-police” rallies in some places and threatening Black demonstrators in others. Now, the NAACP has been targeted in a bomb plot.
No – this is not the plot from Selma. This is real life in the age of Obama.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating an explosion that occurred outside an NAACP office building in Colorado Springs Tuesday morning. The explosion was found to have been caused by a homemade bomb. The gas canister left next to the device did not ignite properly, so damage was minimal, but the explosion knocked items off the walls inside and caused burn damage to a barbershop – which has a predominately Black customer base – that occupied the same building. The suspect in the attack is a White male around 40-years-old and balding. The FBI says it hasn’t determined which entity was the intended target, but it is unlikely that it was the barbershop. Too, in the current racial climate, the conclusion that the NAACP was, indeed, the target, while disturbing, would not be surprising, and it is the conclusion that many – myself included – have already come to. But the bombing received minimal – if any – television news coverage the day it occurred and has received minimal attention in the days after (granted, the news has been dominated by the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris that occurred the following morning). It is receiving some (inadequate) coverage now, but that’s only because the story went viral online and people have demanded it.
Clearly, this was a targeted act of racism – a hate crime. But we already knew a lot of folks don’t like Black people. But the coverage of the attack by the media – or lack thereof – also sheds light on Islamophobic attitudes, biases that seek to excuse White violence, and the perceived value of lives of color in comparison to White ones.
You can count on the American media to do two things in their coverage of any kind of violent plot, especially a bomb plot, committed by persons of Arab descent or by Muslims of any ethnicity. Firstly, the plot is immediately characterized as terrorism or, even if it is found that the attack was not motivated by Muslim extremist views, the question is at least immediately asked. If it is found to be so, the perpetrator is referred to as the “terror suspect.” Secondly, there’s talk of where the terrorist was radicalized. Did he come from overseas or was he self-radicalized in the United States? The latter is seen as even more concerning than the former. (As I write, the media is abuzz with such characterizations of the attack in Paris.) But at the very least, the attack is talked about. No matter its scale, if it happens in the United States, it’s reported on major news networks and, if it happens elsewhere and is relatively major, it gets covered, too. But the NAACP bombing has barely been talked about. In fact, I first learned about it on Twitter. MTV broke the story before CNN. And the ten articles I’ve read about it, including reports by CNN, the Associated Press, and Fox News, have all been void of any such characterizations. None of them referred to the bombing as domestic terrorism, despite several using the term “improvised explosive device” to describe the bomb, a term closely associated with terrorist attacks in the Middle East. Most neglected to mention that it is specifically the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force that is investigating the attack, only mentioning the FBI. And some even failed to mention the race of the suspect at all, as if that information is not a significant consideration in the bombing of a Black civil rights organization.
The media’s failure to adequately cover the NAACP bombing is a clear attempt to hide and downplay White racial violence in a heated racial climate, while simultaneously spinning bad acts by Black actors as extremist and somehow always connected to the Black Lives Matter Movement. (And, accordingly, no one has sought to connect the bombing to the nearly all-White “pro-police” movement that has emerged. Not that it should be – it shouldn’t. But Black protesters were quickly blamed for the NYPD assassinations and we shouldn’t have been either.) But it is also reflective of differences in the perception of violence when it is committed by White people and when it is committed by people of color, and follows a patterned double standard in the treatment of such violence. This attack was a clear act of domestic terrorism, yet the media has not ventured even to call it a hate crime – even to mention its occurrence at all on television news. Can you imagine a bombing being committed on American soil by a Muslim and not making national headlines? I cannot. But the mainstream narrative on violence dictates that White people are not violent – much less are they terrorists – they are much more the victims of terrorism. The “terrorist” label is reserved for brown people (much like the labels “thug” and “criminal”). This was demonstrated in reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing: the terrorist, who was Muslim, was also a White man from Chechnya in the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe – the very region from which the term “Caucasian” is derived. But news networks struggled to “categorize” him, apparently because they couldn’t reconcile his White heritage with the idea that he was also a Muslim and a terrorist. In one report on the bombing, a Fox News host said, “He’s not White. He’s Muslim.” Whiteness cannot be corrupted by the violence of brownness, or the “evil” of Islam.
Too, the media’s handling of this story reflects differences in the perception of violence depending on who it is committed against: it is interpreted differently when the victims are people of color, particularly when the actor is White, than it is when the victims are White. Had a Black person bombed, say, a White conservative organization – particularly in this racial climate – it would be national news. Had the targets in this attack been White (and, thus, usually, assumedly, Christian), even with a White attacker, this story would be the talk of the 24/7 news cycle. Too, the bomber would be deemed a terrorist, as was Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombings: he was a White man, but he also took hundreds of White lives. Attacks on White life, be they small scale shootings with no causalities or otherwise, are always news. White life is held in the highest regard – it is sacred – and threats against it, blasphemous – the highest of offenses. But the lives of people of color – particularly of Black people – are not seen as such. They are less valuable, so threats to them are less concerning – in this case, apparently, of almost no concern. We’ve been reminded of this time and again in recent months, from the numerous killings of unarmed Black people, to the hysteria surrounding the Ebola crisis, which ravaged Black people in parts of West Africa all summer but only garnered major attention from Capitol Hill and the American public once White people started catching it. It is these differences in the perception and interpretation of violence that enable the media to characterize similar crimes so differently, and to give violent White people a pass. But, while this pattern in the media is inexcusable, it is not surprising. We’ve seen this before.
Had the bomb plot been successful – had people actually died – this story would certainly be national news. Alas, one can only conclude this to mean the media feels dead Black people get higher ratings – are worth more to them – than live ones, even when they are the targets of a bombing. And, apparently, bombings potentially (likely) motivated by racial and political motives don’t constitute terrorism when the target is Black, or when the terrorist is White and his targets are not. But neither the media’s apparent inability to value Black lives nor the bombing itself will deter Black people from our fight for Black lives and equal justice. Black freedom fighters, especially in the NAACP, have faced violent attacks in retaliation for our agitation for centuries. This is nothing new. We’ve faced them even from police as we’ve demonstrated over the past months. And, as usual, we will keep on pushing, and keep on fighting. This is a battle that will be won.
You can read about DeAndre Joshua, the Ferguson man found dead, here. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cops-body-of-man-found-in-car-in-ferguson-was-burned/
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.