Osagie K. Obasogie and Zachary Newman, Black Lives Matter and Respectability Politics in Local News Accounts of Officer-involved Civilian Deaths: An Early Empirical Assessment , 2016 Wisconsin Law Review 541 - 571 (2016) (79 Footnotes Omitted)(Appendices and Tables Omitted) (FULL ARTICLE)
Black Lives Matter emerged as an ideology, social movement, and political intervention following George Zimmerman's July 2013 acquittal for the killing of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. The public discussion leading up to and following Zimmerman's acquittal centered in large part on what can be termed the “politics of the hoodie.” In these debates, the hoodie became a key part of widespread public conversations on whether certain attributes or cues signal danger in a manner that might reasonably elicit fear or concern of a kind that could lead police or a concerned citizen to engage someone with deadly force. As a symbolic low-point in this discussion, Fox News host Geraldo Rivera tweeted that the “hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman.” Rivera clarified this the following day on the Fox and Friends television show:
[W]hen you see a kid walking down the street, particularly a dark skinned kid like my son Cruz, who I constantly yelled at when he was going out wearing a damn hoodie or those pants around his ankles. Take that hood off, people look at you and they -- what do they think? What's the instant identification, what's the instant association?
. . . .
. . . It's those crime scene surveillance tapes. Every time you see someone sticking up a 7-11, the kid is wearing a hoodie . . . . You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangster, you're gonna be a gangster wannabe? Well, people are gonna perceive you as a menace.
. . . I'll bet you money, if he didn't have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn't have responded in that violent and aggressive way. Rivera presents a familiar move in the ongoing public discussion regarding the discriminatory and all too often brutal treatment of Black bodies: had the victim only behaved differently and more in line with mainstream norms, he might still be alive. Nevermind that the assailant is, as Rivera put it, “nutty.” Responsibility for the violent encounters -- or at least a missed opportunity to mitigate the possibility for harm -- lies with the victims' dress and behavior, which serves as a warning for all other similarly colored individuals that the best, if not only, way to avoid such outcomes is to comport oneself in a respectable manner.
This, in short, is the politics of respectability: the notion that minorities can best respond to structural racism by individually behaving in a “respectable” manner that elicits the esteem of Whites as a way to insulate the self from attack while also promoting a positive group image that can “uplift” the reputation of the group. Respectability politics has been part of a longstanding internal debate within the Black community for many years while also shaping treatment and expectations of Blacks in civil society. As a social movement, Black Lives Matter can be understood as growing out of a specific opposition to respectability politics. At the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement is the insistence that regardless of any perceived non-respectable behavior -- from Walter Scott evading a police officer during a traffic stop to Sandra Bland's non-compliant interactions with an officer -- their lives matter and should not be treated with deadly disregard. From this vantage point, we can conceptualize one of the many goals of the Black Lives Matter movement as raising awareness of inequality in general and police brutality in particular as part of an effort to disrupt and eradicate respectability politics.
To the extent that the Black Lives Matter movement is largely designed to change public discourse and policies regarding the remarkable disregard given to communities of color, our research attempts to assess the public's responsiveness to these efforts through a single yet important measure: journalists' reporting of officer-involved civilian deaths in local news media. Specifically, we ask, to the extent that the Black Lives Matter movement is largely designed to influence public discourse and policies regarding the remarkable disregard given to communities of color, how successful has it been? Has the public conversation shifted? Black Lives Matter organizers have developed various mainstream and social media strategies to give voice to their concerns and to engage journalists who report on their issues. Thus, it is important to ask if reporters are responding to this engagement.
To investigate this question, we examine one important measure: local newspaper reports of officer-involved civilian killings during five time periods between June 2013 and July 2015. To be sure, much of the attention that journalists have given to Black Lives Matter has not explicitly focused on the particular dynamics of respectability politics. Instead, journalists have examined the nature of police violence. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that the terms of the debate on police violence advanced by the Black Lives Matter movement is steeped in an opposition to respectability. The sustained media attention given to the Black Lives Matter movement has given the impression that journalists have become more sensitive to police brutality and, in turn, the respectability politics that implicitly underlie discussions of the fatal engagements that law enforcement has with everyday citizens. This growing awareness is often thought to have led to reporting that overstates the problem of police violence in minority communities.
However, our qualitative assessment of articles across these time periods paints a very different picture -- one that shows that journalists continue to deploy tropes and narratives tied tightly to respectability in initial local newspaper reports of officer-involved civilian deaths. In this article, we describe these findings as a way to begin a conversation on the upstream effects that the Black Lives Matter movement is having on public discourse concerning police brutality in minority communities and whether it is having the impact that it intends or is characterized as having.
In Part I, we provide a short primer on respectability politics and how it shapes perceptions of minorities.
Part II presents our research question and methods, which provide a framework for understanding our investigation into the movement and any impact that it might have on how local journalists report on these issues.
Part III presents the findings from our data collection and qualitative analysis as well as a discussion of what this initial empirical investigation might mean.
Part IV then concludes with a few thoughts on race, respectability politics, and the need for change.
Osagie K. Obasogie,Professor of Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law with joint appointment at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. B.A., Yale University; J.D., Columbia Law School; Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley.
Zachary Newman,B.A., University of California, Santa Cruz; J.D. Candidate, University of California, Hastings College of the Law.