This is the first in a new series of recurring “Wisdom Wednesday” posts where I share my ongoing education in the field of psychology, as well as my experience using that knowledge in my everyday life and the perspective I gain from it. A full archive of these “where’s your head at” posts can be found on the Life Story Time section of this site. As always, if you like what you see, please be fair-let your voice be heard; comment and share!
In this post I share an academic essay from a Sociology 111 – Introduction to Sociology course I took when I was pursuing my first degree. This was among my first psychology related academic essays. I wrote it in 2016 during a time when I was reflecting on the outpouring of biased media from interracial police violence.
DISCLAIMER: Although this is a blog website and blogs are generally heavily opinionated, please remember, this is an academic research paper. Any opinionated or biased content is unintentional.
Racism, Mass Media and Social Control:
A Sociological Perspective on Police Shootings
On September 27, 2016 Alfred Olango was shot and killed by a police officer in El Cajon, California. Police claim he had been behaving erratically and took a shooting stance with an object in his hand that provoked the subsequent act of deadly force. Two days later, Peter Rowe of the San Diego Union Tribune published an article titled Alfred Olango: A difficult life’s tragic end in El Cajon. He describes the nature of Olango’s upbringing and his struggles. He was born in Uganda under a tyrant fighting a countrywide guerrilla war and doesn’t even know his birthdate. He moved to San Diego more than 20 years ago where he dropped out of high school and was convicted of various misdemeanors and felonies that led to related jail and prison sentences. He had seemed to be in control of his life though, working as a chef in several restaurants across the Southwest. His friends say he had been happy, although was recently extremely saddened by the death of his best friend who was buried only one day after Olango’s death. The accounts of the type of man Olango had become, despite early life troubles, from his friend’s and family’s perspective, describe a completely different person than one who would provoke police to take deadly force action. After the fatal shooting, riots and protest ensued, and a full video of the shooting was released. This event is one within a series of highly publicized interracial police shootings. This essay examines the sociological theories surrounding public knowledge of these events and subsequent reactions with reference to crime and fatal police action, exercising formal social control, how racism plays a role and the effects of mass media.
Racism is defined as, “the idea that one racial group is inherently superior to another; often results in institutionalized relationships between dominant and minority groups that create a structure of economic, social, and political inequality based on socially constructed racial or ethnic categories.” (Chambliss & Eglitis, p.210). Racism began in the infancy of the United States with slavery. White people believed they were superior in all ways to Black people because they did not see them as human, but as property. Since then, there has been progress through the Emancipation Proclamation and various civil rights movements that have strived to make everyone equal regardless of color, not only by law, but also in their hearts and minds. In 2013, a civil authority, George Zimmerman, was accused of murdering a young Black man, Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted. This event sparked a national movement among the Black population. The organization Black Lives Matter was founded as “a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” (Black Lives). The organization believes there is still an extreme amount of racism and prejudice within the United States and their mission is to “rebuild the Black liberation movement.” (Black Lives). With this ideology, a White police officer killed a Black man and was found just in his actions; how is that racism against the Black population? There is overwhelming evidence from the New Century Foundation, which exists to “to study immigration and race relations so as to better understand the consequences of America’s increasing diversity,” (AmRen). Their report titled The Color of Crime posited, “…evidence suggests, that if there is police racial bias in arrests, it is negligible.” (AmRen). In 2015, police committed about five percent of Black homicides, while the Black population committed 93 percent of Black on Black homicides. In 2013, of all interracial crimes, the Black population committed 85 percent, which means a White person was 27 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime committed by a Black person. These statistics are nowhere to be found on the Black Lives Matter website but are easily accessible in databases like FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report. Black Lives Matter is a movement that has growing support, not based on factual data, but the idea of racism portrayed by highly opinionated and politically biased mass media.
Mass media is defined as, “media of public communication intended to reach and influence a mass audience.” (Chambliss & Eglitis, p.68). One of the most widely used medium for mass media is television, but mass media is everywhere. One may find it difficult to go about their day without experiencing it. It comes in the form of newspaper, radio, billboards, and of course, the Internet. Mass media can be a blessing and a curse. It can provide highly valuable information to an extremely large amount of people. While law and moral guidelines, like everyone, bind media networks, they are also motivated by power and money. Media plays such an important role in the lives of most Americans; they are driven to it and by it. One must think critically when it comes to how news is received and perceived. Black Lives Matter, which is widely used in the form of a hash tag, a form of grouping similar media together online for easier viewing, has gained an enormous amount of following from people of all races, ages and genders. Media is naturally drawn to cover and promote events that further that cause, and by proxy, the network’s ratings and earnings. Mass media’s coverage of the labeled racist actions and homicide has grown, but not the actual crime. Eliott McLaughlin wrote, “…the headlines make it feel as if the country is experiencing an unprecedented wave of police violence, but experts say that isn’t the case. We’re just seeing more mainstream media coverage,” (McLaughlin). Experts agree the one factor that has amplified mass consumption and perception is the cell phone. These devices, that are estimated to be in the hands of six billion of the world’s seven billion population (Chambliss & Eglitis, p.190), put people in a better position to film police action and widely distribute the footage. This begs the question; have the police been guilty of misconduct for decades and are just now being found out, or is mass media used to portray and influence the masses that this is the case? Dr. Lisa Wade wrote that the cognitive belief that Black people are dangerous comes, in part, from the media. “A new study by Color of Change found that, while 51% of the people arrested for violent crime in New York City are Black, 75% of the news reports about such arrests highlighted Black alleged perpetrators.” (Wade). The connections between crime and race make neural links in our brains that recognize, per-consciously, the racism in the media. Which means the connection is made before our mind has a chance to flush it out, meaning, even if one firmly believes in racial equality, a seed of racism has been planted in their subconscious based on the biased media reports.
Imagine you’re in line at the drive through of your favorite fast-food restaurant. It’s your turn to place your order; you commence a short and normal conversation with the drive through attendant and proceed to the window to complete the transaction. As you continue a person walks in front of you before you can reach the window. They have food in their hands and are shouting through the window at the employees. As the situation escalates, the person becomes irate and throws their food through the window and attempts to grab one employee. You hear sirens, but the irate person continues and escalates their behavior. Police arrive and peacefully subdue the man, arrest him, put him in a squad car and commence their duty to collect data and interview victims and bystanders. At what point did the drive through experience become criminal? Crime is defined as “any act defined in the law as punishable by fines, imprisonment, or both.” Crime rates in the past year have risen. Data from the FBI and Major Cities Association concludes, “homicides increased 9% in the largest 63 cities in the first quarter of 2016; nonfatal shootings were up 21%… …Those increases come on top of last year’s 17% rise in homicides in the 56 biggest U.S. cities, with 10 heavily Black cities showing murder spikes above 60%.” (Mac Donald). This increase in crime is heavily related to a decrease in police action, thought to have been brought on by the “Ferguson effect,” also known as the “viral video effect.” This effect has gained traction since the protests against police brutality and racism in the St. Louis suburb in 2014. “…crime rose because the police found themselves hamstrung in a political environment in which their every move was scrutinized.” (Gross). Police were so afraid of scrutiny, that within their social group, they now considered certain previously acceptable police tactics to now be deviant based on social perception, perpetrated by mass media. In 2014 and 2015 not a single cop was convicted of murder. Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University said, “since 2005, there have only been 13 officers convicted of murder or manslaughter in fatal on-duty shootings.” (Fermer). This is due, in part, to the leeway afforded to cops in the wake of Graham v. Connor, a case that clearly defined how a reasonable officer might use their judgment to make a split-second decision on the scene, rather than being judge from a non-player in hindsight. Juries and judges tend to side with police during trials “and will give the benefit of every doubt to an officer on trial in these cases.” (Fermer). If police now have that lawful ammunition to trust their instincts and react in the proper way in the line of duty, then why are they afraid of scrutiny? One might argue that social control is being used by supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter to subdue and make deviant the once common police action against criminal behavior.
Deviance serves a valuable purpose in society to draw moral boundaries within a social group and define what is and isn’t acceptable. Police officers are part of a formal organization, “rationally designed to achieve particular objectives, often by means of explicit rules, regulations, and procedures,” (Chambliss & Eglitis, p.115). More specifically, a coercive organization, similar to the military, where there is a clear chain of command, unquestionable submission to authority is required, and the members have been institutionalized. In-fact, many police are former military and flock to other coercive organizations motivated by fear of anomie due to being institutionalized by the military. If law and their organization bind members of the police force, then social control forced upon by outside forces and the fear of being perceived as deviant has a powerful influence. That perception can then become a label, which then is acted upon by the labeled. “Labeling theory holds that deviant behavior is a product of the labels people attach to certain types of behavior.” Meaning, if a Black liberation movement that has gained popularity from a good amount of the population and then is catapulted into immense media coverage based on their morally acceptable objectives, calls police brutal and unjust, they have now placed that label on police. In turn this causes the police to act in a way, based on that label, that prevents them from carrying out common duties as viewed by their organization as morally and legally right.
How would race have played a role in the previously discussed drive-through scenario? Whether the man was Black or White, based on the details proved, committed several crimes and acts of deviance. Police would be in their right to use proper force to keep the peace. Would cell phone footage have surfaced of the incident if it ended in a standoff and a shooting by White police of a White man? Would a mass of Black witnesses with cell phones have changed the way the officer reacted if it were a Black perpetrator? Perceived criminal behavior is greatly affected by racism, mass media, and social control. These theories play a major role in American society and have changed the sociological landscape. The father of modern sociology Emile Durkheim said, “society is a complex system of component parts, which are interdependent and interrelated. Like an organism, society is more than the sum of its parts.”
American Renaissance. (n.d.). The Color of crime. Retrieved from http://www.amren.com/the-color-of-crime/
Chambliss, W. J., & Eglitis, D. S. (2016). CUSTOM: APUS: Discover sociology 2E custom interactive e-book edition, second edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Gross, N. (2016). Is there a ‘Ferguson effect’? The New York Times, Sunday Review. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/opinion/sunday/is-there-a-ferguson-effect.html?_r=0
Mac Donald, H. (2016). The nationwide crime wave is building. The Wall Street Journal, Opinion. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-nationwide-crime-wave-is- building-1464045462
McLaughlin, E. C. (2015) We’re not seeing more police shootings, just more news coverage.
CNN, U.S., Crime + Justice. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/20/us/police-brutality-video-social-media-attitudes/
Rowe, P. (2016) Alfred Olango: A difficult life’s tragic end in El Cajon. San Diego Union Tribune, Crime, Courts & Fire. Retrieved from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/crime-courts-fire/sd-me-olango-profile-20160928-story.html
Wade, L. (2015). Racial bias and media coverage of violent crime. The Society Pages, Sociological Images. Retrieved from https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2015/04/09/racial-bias-and-media-coverage-of-violent-crime/