One night during his Junior year, Thompson Uwanomen ’19 entered the Dunkin Donuts in downtown Andover to buy a snack. Uwanomen recalled that, as he reached for his wallet, a police officer came into the store, asking if Uwanomen was causing trouble.
Uwanomen referenced this incident in his presentation “The Criminalization of Black Men in News Media” as an an example of how media portrayals of black men as dangerous manifest in the everyday lives of people, even his own.
Uwanomen is a recipient of the annual CAMD Scholarship, a program that allows selected students to research topics of diversity and multiculturalism. His talk, which took place in Kemper Auditorium, concluded Andover’s 29th celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 21.
Attendee Sabrina-Angela Codrington ’21 said that she found found Uwanomen’s presentation thought-provoking, and said she was able to learn much from it.
“My favorite part was when Thompson brought up a personal anecdote about his experiences at Andover with the police, because it made the presentation so much more real, and more of a conversation than a lecture,” said Codrington.
Uwanomen’s presentation highlighted the ways in which preconceived and generalized notions of black men proliferate into society, especially among police. Uwanomen’s research focused on comparisons between the roles that historical and modern-day media have in the current portrayal of black men.
“In today’s case, America’s long-standing history of framing African-American men within the context of savagery and delinquency from the nineteenth century have led different mediums of news media in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century focused on crime reports, such as television in-print newspapers, and online newspaper articles,” said Uwanomen in his presentation.
“To involuntarily fall back on such depictions of blackness disseminate and reinforce the stereotype of black male criminality,” continued Uwanomen.
Uwanomen explained that categorizations of black people, particularly men, of being dangerous have existed since North American colonial times.
“As far back as the early seventeenth century, colonial ideologies scripted the myth of black criminality through plays, novels, and books, often casting black men as prime examples of delinquency. After the end of the Civil War, the Reconstruction in the U.S. began and this stigmatization of black life continued, ” said Uwanomen.
Uwanomen described how, in attempting to legitimately support their claims of black criminality, social scientists tried to find different kinds of concrete evidence, such as statistics from prisons, to back up their notions of black people.
“Through the propagation of books and articles, premised on the racial ideology of black criminality by journalists and novelists, the mythology of black criminality thrived,” said Uwanomen.
According to Uwanomen, media holds an extremely powerful position in influencing and informing the minds of individuals, and there have been instances in which black men have attempted and failed to use the power of the media in their favor.
Uwanomen referenced the 1971 Attica prison riot, during which inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y., rebelled against officials with the hope of improved living conditions and civil rights. Ultimately, 43 people were killed: 33 inmates and ten correctional officers.
Uwanomen described how despite the violence inflicted upon the black prisoners, they were depicted as the villains.
“According to prison reform scholar Barbara L. McAneny, inmates understood that their public support depended on their portrayal in media, and even hoped to employ media as a platform to garner sympathy,” said Uwanomen.
“On the contrary, however, newspaper accounts of the Attica rebellion provided the public with the distorted and single-sided take on the event, from the perspectives of only correctional facility officers, who isolated the inmates as cold-blooded and dangerous,” continued Uwanomen.
Although media has evolved to keep up with the times, Uwanomen said he believes that its core messages to audiences remain very similar. According to Uwanomen, the recurring role of media only serves to reiterate the societal beliefs of black criminality.
“Media’s intrinsic reliance on social practice transformed it into a platform that could preserve, disseminate, and reinforce the ideology of black crime,” said Uwanomen.
The intersection of crime and race arose once again in the disproportionate use of mugshots in news reporting, according to Uwanomen.
“Mugshots make their subjects guilty… By portraying black suspects more often in mugshots in comparison to whites, televised crime news room reports not only treat their subjects different but blend the credence to the ideology of black criminality,” said Uwanomen.
Uwanomen finalized these thoughts by returning to his own experience in downtown Andover. According to Uwanomen, he could not grasp why the officer said what he said.
Uwanomen said, “With Michael Brown’s death at the age of 18 and Trayvon at 17, I step into my own age, especially after my own incident, with caution. Not paying too much attention to the police officer’s words at first, I continued to search through my wallet for money to pay the cashier with after I made my order,”
Uwanomen continued, “In the process, however, my mind slowly drifted back to what the officer said, and I turned my head back with an offended and confused look to where he stood in the store, only to see no one there.”