Media and Race Relations After Ferguson

Encore: August 27, 2014

NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development associate professor Charlton McIlwain discusses race relations and the role of the media during coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri.

In Missouri, in New York in the nation, the issue in the summer of 2014 is race, and the big questions are, has there been a change in the relationship between white and black Americans? And what do we do now? 

NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development associate professor Charlton McIlwain joined MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman to talk about the state of race relations in light of recent event involving black men and white police officers.

“I think we’ve come a long way. I think anyone would be disingenuous to say that things today are not different than they were 40 years ago, 50 years ago. We have an African-American president, an attorney general who’s African-American, prominent leaders and so forth, they’re there,” McIlwain said. “But I think what Michael Brown shows is that the issue of race and the issue particularly of criminal justice as it relates to people of color, particularly African-American and Latino men, is really something that we have not dealt with. And so when people look and say, ‘This happens and it happens today and it happens tomorrow and it happened yesterday, it continues to happen in the same way,’ something still has not been done.”

McIlwain described the killing of Michael Brown as the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” He said that there was a buildup of anger surrounding the deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement officers around the country. McIlwain, who studies race, politics and the media, said the way in which Brown was killed by a white police officer in a town where the majority of residents are black and the images of the killing – Brown was shot six times in broad daylight and his body was photographed lying in the street for almost four hours – also added to the anger.

“It was a vision that all Americans could really look to and say ‘Wow, something is not right here,'” McIlwain said.

McIlwain also discussed the protests in Ferguson that followed Brown’s killing.

“There have been times, I think, when the media have started to really cover the case…where you started to see some of the shifting focus of the media and some of the questions. In particular questions about the rights of journalists,” he said. “So for a moment when journalists really started to flood Ferguson and started to cover the event and the police were fighting back and barring them from covering the way that they wanted to, I think the story shifted…In a way that simply detracted focus away from the real issue of the case.”

But McIlwain also said that the media have done a fairly accurate job of portraying the events taking place and did not agree that they were responsible for agitating the situation as some have claimed. “It is part of the job and they have covered the violence that is there and I think by and large they have covered what they have been seeing,” he said. “But there is something about the spectacle of it all and the cameras that are there that I think amplifies some of the violence and actions going on because people know that they are being watched and they are being seen.”

When asked about the specific role of social media, McIlwain said that Ferguson is a case where so-called hashtag activism had a positive effect by causing traditional media outlets to take notice and devote more time and resources to the story.

McIlwain concluded that “Obama [and] Attorney General Holder are doing the right thing by saying ‘Look this is something we need to attack systemically. We need to look at not only what’s happening in Ferguson but what’s happening in Washington with our laws, with our policy, with the way that we police our streets and communities across the nation. And so I think that kind of action, that kind of change, substantive change, is where we need to be moving.”

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