Pointergate: Where to point the blame in media bias

by Rasheed Shabazz | Nov. 24, 2014

What happens when a mayor of a major U.S. city points at a resident while posing for a photo? If that mayor poses with a Black male, police officers might accuse that mayor of throwing up gang signs.

That's what happened when Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, while canvassing for GOTV (Get Out the Vote) activities this November, posed for a photo with Navell Gordon, a volunteer working for Neighborhood Organizations for Change. Minneapolis police saw the photo while conducting Facebook surveillance (“investigative work”) and sent it to a local TV station. Police alleged she endangered police officers by taking the photo with a gang member. The news report, “Mpls. Mayor Flashes Gang Sign with Convicted Felon; Law Enforcement Outraged,” relied solely on statements of law enforcement that admitted Gordon was not in a gang nor was he affiliated.

Despite being in an era of widespread cultural appropriation, the thought of a 45-year-old white female mayor from Minnesota throwing up gang signs still sounds like something out of The Onion. But “Pointergate” is no laughing matter. Photo-ops and canvassing are routine for elected officials, but the story of how the police used the photo for a political operation and the press going from being watchdogs to K-9 lapdogs provides a case study in conceptual understandings and operations of racialization today.

Racism without racists

Most folks’ understanding of racism features a bigot and intentional hate. In order for someone or something to be “racist,” there must be an obvious bigot, a Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher. When I showed the video to workshop attendees at the recent Students of Color Conference at UC Merced, students immediately understood the racial implications of the video, but not everyone is as savvy. Despite Gordon being rendered nameless, faceless and voiceless, there is no direct reference to race, reminiscent of the 1988 Willie Horton attack ad. And surely the officers in the video have Black friends to trot out as evidence that they are not racist. Somehow, we have racism without racists.

Another concept is institutional or structural racism, what Berkeley Law Professor john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, refers to as “structural marginalization.” When we analyze structures, their origins and formations, we see how the process of racialization marginalizes groups. Like most American cities, Minneapolis is racially and economically segregated. Black people are mostly concentrated in North Minneapolis. While constituting the largest nonwhite group in the city, Black cops represent less than nine percent of the Minneapolis police force. Of new recruits, over 70 percent will likely be white. Despite a long-standing Black newspaper, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, consolidated media is owned and controlled and serves the majority population, feeding their biases. Despite having a progressive mayor and a commitment to racial equity, Minneapolis today is segregated, some communities are hyper-policed population with minimal access to opportunity and targeted by bias media. It’s a situation with many of the makings of Ferguson.

These structures, especially socialization through mass media increases implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that impact how we understand phenomenon, how we act, and what we act on. Implicit bias partially explains the recent Pew Research Center study that found different perceptions of the racial implications of the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown. Pointergate activates the age-old framing that associates Black people with criminality. Enslaved Africans who ran away were deemed “fugitives.” Civil rights agitators were “troublemakers.” These stereotypes continue today and are often used as common sense justification for the murder. Biased-based policing is partially responsible for Minneapolis Police disproportionately arresting Black youth. The media framing that reinforces existing biases and justifies militarized policing.

‘Dog Whistle Politics’

In his book, Dog Whistle Politics, Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney López explains how elites use racism strategically to attain their goals. “Strategic racism refers to purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing,” he writes. Elites used racism during Reconstruction to impose “slavery by another name” (convict leasing) to control Black labor. Elites used racism during the modern Civil Rights Movement to oppose integration, and the Willie Horton ad to elect of George Bush, Sr. Today, police use racism to justify police violence. Trayvon Martin’s character was on trial after the vigilante George Zimmerman murdered him. These stereotypes come to be understood as common sense. Coincidentally, the Pointergate story was planted the same day Minneapolis police officers began using new body cameras. The police union strategically employed the “Blackman = Gangbanger” framing to resist accountability. KSPT-TV bought and sold it. In some respects, Gordon was simply collateral damage, a prop or an object in a political battle between police seeking power and Mayor Hodges’ pledge to re-instill trust in police. On the other hand, the dehumanization of Gordon as justification for police repression is an objective. The criminalization of a generation packs cells, pads pockets, and protects the middle-class status of the slave patrollers.

Internalizing Racism

A final layer of marginalization is the process of internalized racialization. How those crudely depicted in racial stereotypes internalize these images? One impact is “stereotype threat,” defined as the risk of someone confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. Gordon was formerly incarcerated and is now disenfranchised. Since he’s unable to vote, he knocked on hundreds of doors in North Minneapolis neighborhoods to encourage others to vote. KSPT-TV’s story omitted that last fact as well as Mayor Hodges’ battle with police over misconduct and reform, which officers continue to resist.

Younger people watching Gordon take action to improve his life and create opportunities for others may be discouraged from doing so. Why do something good when the media will still paint you as a thug, blur you out and render you invisible? It can feel like the whole system is against you, encouraging nihilism and self-defeat. An ex-cop in the KSPT-TV video claimed alleged gang members would think they gained status with Mayor Hodges being down with their squad is inconsequential when compared to the damage to those who internalize these ethnic notions. Internalizing stereotypes degrades people’s self-concept.

Beyond Bias

So what’s the point? Minneapolis needs to diversity its police force, end the misconduct that led to the Metro Gang Task Force being shutdown and continue the reforms reviewed by the Department of Justice last month following a one-year investigation. KSTP-TV needs to improve its journalistic standards. When faced with criticism for stereotyping, the station released a weak statement pointing to police as their source. The station then posted a follow-up story, essentially stenography masked as journalism, consulting other so-called gang experts to support their mayor-turned-banger portrayal.

KSPT-TV then went on to further shame Navell Gordon. Mainstream media must diversify its newsrooms as well as the images it presents of Black people beyond sports and so-called criminals. There’s nothing wrong with images of Black athletes, but when it’s done at the exclusion of any other positive images, this perpetuate stereotypes that exalt Black bodies while considering their minds and mores inferior. It’s likely that an audit of its coverage will show similar stereotypical reporting on Black men and boys as other media markets, as illustrated by Pointergate.

Fortunately, the Black Press is still striving in many places. The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder is a source of positive coverage, but its circulation is limited and independent media does not (always) impact the dominant groups’ perceptions.

We must confront stereotypesFor media consumers, taking the Implicit Association Test is one step towards increasing awareness of implicit biases associated with race, religion, sexuality, skin color and disability. Being aware of our prejudices is one step. We must ultimately change the structures that influence our thoughts, behaviors and beliefs. If we don’t take responsibility for creating a more fair and inclusive society, we only have ourselves to blame. And we’ll all be pointing fingers.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.