Making Black Men Look Scary

“I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner’s last words

“I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner’s last words

Black men who are killed by police officers often end up with a media makeover — and it’s not flattering.

For Black History Month I am reposting a Sociological Images look at how the images are selected and sometimes altered. The piece was published last August. Here it is (with permission):

By Lisa Wade, PhD @ Sociological Images

This has been a hard week.  Another young, unarmed black man was killed by police. The Root added Michael Brown’s face to a slideshow of such incidents, started after a black man named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by officers less than one month ago.  This week’s guilty verdict in the trial of the man who shot Renisha McBride left me feeling numb.  Nothing good could come of it, but at least I didn’t feel worse.

The shooting of Michael Brown, however, is still undergoing trial by media and the verdict is swayed by the choices made by producers and directors as to how to portray him. When Marc Duggan was killed by police earlier this year, they often featured pictures in which he looked menacing, including ones that had been cropped in ways that enhanced that impression.

Left: Photo of Duggan frequently used by media; right: uncropped photo in which he holds a plaque commemorating his deceased daughter.


As the media coverage of Brown’s death heated up, the image that first circulated of Brown was this:


Reports state that this was his current Facebook profile picture, with the implication that media actors just picked the first or most prominent picture they saw.  Or, even, that somehow it’s Brown’s fault that this is the image they used.

Using the image above, though, is not neutrality.  At best, it’s laziness; they simply decided not to make a conscious, careful choice.  It’s their job to pick a photograph and I don’t know exactly what the guidelines are but “pick the first one you see” or “whatever his Facebook profile pic was on the day he died” is probably not among them.

There are consequential choices to be made.  As an example, here are two photos that have circulated since criticism of his portrayal began — the top more obviously sympathetic and the bottom more neutral:


Commenting on this phenomenon, Twitter user @CJ_musick_lawya released two photos of himself, hashtagged with #iftheygunnedmedown, and asked readers which photo they thought media actors would choose.

Top: Wearing a cap and gown with former President Clinton; bottom: in sunglasses posing with a bottle and a microphone.


The juxtaposition brilliantly revealed how easy it is to demonize a person, especially if they are a member of a social group stereotyped as violence-prone, and how important representation is.  It caught on and the imagery was repeated to powerful effect. A summary at The Root featured examples like these:


The New York Times reports that the hashtag has been used more than 168,000 times as of  August 12th.  I want to believe that conversations like these will educate and put pressure on those with the power to represent black men and all marginalized peoples to make more responsible and thoughtful decisions.

This article was reposted with permission from Sociological Images.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 6, 2015, in feminism, psychology, race/ethnicity and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I thought this was an interesting read. I am not surprised at how the media depicts colored people. But I never really took the time to think about exactly what pictures they would use to show who “they really are”. I think it was a great idea to start the hashtag because if they ever were gunned down (god forbid) which one would they actually pick?

    I can say myself that when I see the news I often think “well look how they’re dressed” or “look what he’d smoking”because we are fed the wrong information. It’s really unfortunate that we do that. But because colored people already have a history, we blame colored people for all the wrongs in America.

  2. Thank you for sharing great article.
    It was hardly believed that the incident like this actually happened in present day. In my country, Japan, we have a relationship problem with North and South Korea and China recently, but not bad as this.
    We have black president recently, and many other black people flourish as actors, comedians, athletes and musicians. I love Will Smith and Usher. I thought the race problem has been settled, so I was pretty shocked when I read the news.
    The most shocking thing on your article was that his picture was actually cropped and made him look he was like really bad guy.
    I want to share one of my favorite video here. .
    All the people have different race and culture, but we are all human beings. I wish something like this will never happen, and the media, instead of showing how scary black people are they should show people how great these people are.

  3. I actually remember this news. I watched that in Japan. When I watched this news, I even didn’t care about “race” problems because in Japan, we have just one race. However, in Japan, media is the only way to know “different race” because if we are stuck in Japan, basically we don’t see other races. To be honest, I thought that black people looked scary before and they might do illegal things. However, when I came to the U.S. first time, the Americans that I was close were black people and they were totally nice to us, Asian comparing to white people. Of course, it depends on people. We cannot decide people’s personality through the media. When I came here, one more thing that I was surprised was that black people make the sports fun! I believe that people should not decide someone by media. we have to decide by seeing people.

  4. I completely agree with this article. It seems that in the media these days, black men are seen as the aggressive race. Starting with Trayvon Martin, only being a seventeen year old boy, he was portrayed on television as a black man. They broadcasted his murder as a “shooting”, they called him an adult, the media released photographs of him that were purposely meant to sway the audience to have an opinion about the case before the trial even began. I definitely agree that these photographs are used solely against black males because they are an easy target. Both figuratively and literally. From past generations to now, African Americans have been placed in this box labeled all things lower class and ghetto. It is then all too easy to portray someone of that race in that light. I believe the media knows exactly what it’s doing. African Americans protesting “black lives matter” are seen as “angry” and “violent”, while actual violent rioters from a different race are seen as “passionate”. It seems obvious to me, but clearly that is not the case for other people.

  5. As a young black man, it is hard for me to read articles like this and know that the media has a way of making the entire country despise you. They claim to take the most recent pictures of the men, but from what I have seen, I believe they choose the one that will sell the story better. Just like anything else in America, the media work to sell their stories to the public no matter what it takes. It seems as if media has turned into who can make the more money over making sure the public is properly informed. The hashtag discussed, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, really amazed me because it was true. The media would make sure to either crop the picture or chose one that makes a young black man seem dangerous just to make the story that much more interesting. I believe there should be a standard set, for all races and genders, which media have to use when choosing an image to display. Making us young black men seem scary is neither fair nor real. Given there are some men, no matter the race, that are scary, but they should be more careful in choosing so as to not give an entire race a bad name.

  6. Aram Moshkounian

    This is a topic that is very saddening for many people across the world. I believe that it is criminal to continue to allow innocent young African American males to be killed by police unjustly. Not only is it heartbreaking that so many people have passed away recently because of these types of events it is also disgusting how the media portrays these young African American males. Looking at the pictures you just showed me it makes me very angry because they are trying to paint these innocent people as thugs and criminals. These men who passed away recently were all loving family men, who really cared about people. The media will try to paint a fake picture of them that simply isn’t true. The media has been doing things like this for years and we need to put a stop to it. Giving people false information and ruining someones name by making them look like a a bad person to me is just criminal. This in my opinion is something that should not be allowed to happen anymore, we need to put a stop to it!

  7. I think these stories are tragedies because these black men were killed accidentally but media reports them as if they are not victims. Usually, for victims, media chooses pictures implying how they were good people and these pictures make people sad and thought why they were needed to be murdered. Only murderers are demonized.However, when it comes to these kind of incidents, media chooses demonized pictures and says that was their fault to be killed.
    I think this could be one of the reason that these kind of racial incidents still happen because media shows that sentences of officers, who killed black people accidentally, are supposed to be reduced.

  8. The media is biased everyone knows it except for the people that refuse to see it like it is. It is sad and annoying that the media can take something out of context and put it out there for the world to see and not feel any guilt. But it is good that people are aware of what the media is capable of and that it is pointed out in order to help open the eyes of those who refuse to believe otherwise.

  9. A good read. Thank you for sharing this. I come from news/media background. There are some very irresponsible and dangerous reporting and media presentations world-wide.

  10. Michael Bullock

    All of those stories are sad. There had to be something that started those type of situations. Maybe female cops are more safe to be around. It doesn’t look like there will be a story of a female cop doing this type of damage. Just stay away from cops period. Move on with a positive image in your life.

    • You are right that female cops are less likely to do this sort of thing. At one point people thought it would be ridiculous to have women cops, But it turns out that it’s really helpful to have some on the force. Partly because Women cops are less likely to use violence and partly because they are better at doing community policing — and are more accepted by the communities — and community policing is one of the most effective ways of cutting down on crime.

      • There was a female cop involved in a race related thing last month. I don’t remember if she took the guy down or sprayed a man in the eye as he was on the phone, but it was a black man and the police station got some flack. I remember seeing it on an article on yahoo.

      • Well on average women are less likely to have these sorts of problems.

  11. Reminds me of the old OJ Simpson images on Newsweek v Time, back when they were clumsy enough with photoshop to get caught more easily. Some things change too damn slowly.

  12. I am keeping in mind Lombroso’s theories right now …
    ” Lombroso’s theory of anthropological criminology essentially stated that criminality was inherited, and that someone “born criminal” could be identified by physical defects, which confirmed a criminal as savage, or atavistic… Lombroso’s general theory suggested that criminals are distinguished from noncriminals by multiple physical anomalies. He postulated that criminals represented a reversion to a primitive or subhuman type of man characterized by physical features reminiscent of apes, lower primates, and early man and to some extent preserved, he said, in modern “savages”. (Source wikipedia)…
    Overall and to be succinct: A false premise might lead to logical fallacies
    Great Post, Georgia! Regards, Aquileana 😀

  13. Media is biased, everywhere. These are really sad incidents….

  14. the media doesn’t always do that though. Just like you said they can paint some black men who are maybe good, as bad or thugs. The media can paint that for cops, though some might be bad, but paint a broadstroke for cops looking bad. Or like cnn or other ones paint black men who are actually thugs and not show the thug pictures and just them looking like angels.

  15. It depends on the media. I’ve seen pictures from the likes of cnn or other liberbal like media where pictures are of michael brown with his niece, or that little girl. And total reluctance of the media to show the possible bad side of him. And yahoo and other such media will often be biased and already have it like the cops are guilty if you read and assume the cops are guilty way before facts come out and treat the black man as a marty without facts. I think it goes both way, like Eric Garner I think it shouldn’t have went down that way the cops should have been punished for his actions. I feel differently for michael brown, but what bothers me is that the media puts them all together, just because it’s a cops and a black man and portrays the automatic assumption that the cops were guilty and wrongdoing just because it’s a black man involved.

    Even though the cases should be dissected and looked at individually, but the media likes to race bait and blend them all together. The Michael brown unlike Garner stole from the store roughed up the guy at the store, fought a cop, etc compared to garner who was selling e cigarettes a petty crime and garner didn’t fight the cops. There’s a difference, plus there’s a picture of Brown with a gun at a table. That’s not a good sign and behaviour brandishing a gun in a picture, really helps him add to a thug picture if that’s what he’s going for.

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