Racism is alive and well in America. The belief that it ended after the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s is a naïve opinion to hold. Racism is entrenched and ingrained in our culture to such a degree that police assaulting black men hardly registers as news. Martese Johnson is a third-year student at the University of Virginia, who was assaulted and arrested by Alcoholic Beverage Control officers. Johnson was pulled aside by officers for attempting to use a fake ID, and was assaulted because he was “agitated and belligerent” (BBC, 2015). Johnson’s case shows that power in society is with those privileged by skin colour, and racialized images contribute to the police aggression against black men.
Johnson garnered the attention of ABC officers by attempting to use a fake ID to enter a bar close to University of Virginia campus. On campuses across the world, students attempt to use fake IDs. Most are turned away without incident; however, Johnson was targeted by officers because he is black. White privilege involves society’s hierarchies, mainly that white people are given invisible advantages in society over persons of colour (McIntosh, 3). McIntosh states that one of the privileges white people hold involves knowing that if a cop questions them, it is not because of the colour of their skin. In Johnson’s case, his harassment was tied to his skin colour. Young black men have been racialized by media images and portrayals of them as “brutish and aggressive…as rapists, pimps, gangsters, drug dealers, or wife abusers…” (Aulette and Wittner, 107). Media images socialize one to view black men as dangerous and aggressive, causing police officers to be fearful and more aggressive towards black men.
The intense racialization of black men as drug dealers intersects with power held by white men, and causes the prosecution and incarceration of black men. Black men are incarcerated at a higher rate than white men, because of drug policies. Black and white people use different drugs. Rich white men’s drug of choice is cocaine, while black men’s is crack cocaine (Aulette and Wittner, 390). Crack cocaine carries a higher minimum sentencing than regular cocaine, which is mostly used by white men (Aulette and Wittner, 390). Therefore, it is clear that black people are targeted by drug policies. Both cocaine and crack are harmful, but the racialized drug carries a higher sentence.
Furthermore, black people are no more likely than white people to use drugs (Aulette and Wittner, 390). An English study found that black people are less likely to use drugs, but more likely to be stopped for drug searches and more likely to be charged for drug possessions (Eastwood, Shiner and Bear, 12-13). Black men’s racialization by the media has led to their persecution by police officers. Johnson’s situation is nothing out of the ordinary for black men, he is simply another victim of the intersection of racialization and privilege.
Rhetoric around black men is full of racist stereotypes and language. On an article published by The Cavalier Daily, comments surrounding Johnson’s assault focused on what Johnson had done to break the law, attempting to justify the action of ABC officers. Media socializes one to believe that black men are dangerous, emphasizing physical and social characteristics which are threatening. This belief can be seen with the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Media rhetoric focused on Brown’s size, “the 6-foot-4, 292-pound Brown charged Wilson” (McKay, 2014). Moreover, media focused on Martin’s “thug” attitude, stating: “Martin would be alive today, okay, if he didn’t, alright, have a street attitude” (Fox, 2013). Quotes like these socialize one to think police officers are in the right to shoot or assault black men. Johnson’s assault can be seen as this same socialization. Police stated that Johnson was acting aggressive to justify their assault (BBC, 2015).
Martese Johnson’s only crime is attempting to use a fake ID. If he had been born white, there would have been no issue. However, because of his skin colour he was stereotyped as aggressive by police officers, and beaten. Privilege blinds one to how they are advantaged, and it takes stories like this to show what happens to the marginalized. What happened to Johnson is another example of how black lives are worth less than white lives in North American society. Racialized caricatures of black people in the media socialize one to believe this. How can the United States hold the belief that they are the champions of freedom and justice, when those in charge treat marginalized people as lesser? There is no justice for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner or the thousands of unnamed black men unjustly killed or beaten by police. There is no justice because of socialization. Media language socializes one to side with those in power, by portraying black men as aggressive criminals. Until the discourse surrounding these cases changes, there can be no justice.
Aulette, Judy R., and Judith Wittner. “Chapter 4: Sexualities.” Gendered Worlds. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.
“Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.
Ellen. “Fox News Guest Blames Trayvon Martin’s ‘Street Attitude’ For His Death.” NewsHounds. NewsHounds, 11 June 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
“University student, Honor Committee member Martese Johnson arrested.” The Cavalier Daily. Heskett, Chloe, 18 Mar 2015. Web.
McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Backpack.
McKay, Hollie. “Missouri Cop Was Badly Beaten before Shooting Michael Brown, Says Source.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.