Rafi of the blog So Let’s Talk About It recently made a startling discovery about subtle racial biases.
Earlier this month the Iowa newspaper The Gazette posted two stories about local burglaries written by the same author and published within one day of each other. One story used yearbook photos of the suspects while the other used mugshots. The only other difference between the two stories? Those who got the yearbook photos were white and those who got the mugshots were black.
As Rafi points out, regardless of what photos were available of the black suspects, the white suspects definitely had mugshots taken. In trying to justify the discrepancy, The Gazette explained they must make a formal request in order to get mugshots, yet they were clearly willing to take that extra step when it came to the black suspects.
This is just another reminder that the media has a lot of power to subtly shape the perception of crimes. It's the same issue that inspired the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter, which sought to draw attention to the way black victims of police brutality are so often portrayed as menacing or dangerous. Similarly, The Huffington Post explored how the media will often portray white suspects with more empathy and respect than black victims.
In the Gazette example, the black men already look guilty while the white men look clean-cut even though both groups were arrested for the same crime.
So why weren’t mugshots good enough for the white guys who got arrested? Who already looks guilty before their trial? Which story plants the seed into a potential jury pool that this is a group of good kids versus this is a group of criminals?
The worst part is, I’m almost positive the author didn’t consciously say “I’ll use mugshots for the Black men but not the others.” It was just an instinctual reaction, implicit bias, the result of being conditioned from birth to view Black men one way and white men another way. That’s what we have to overcome in our everyday lives. It’s not about you saying, “I’m not a racist because I try to treat everyone equally.” It’s the knowledge that YOU could have done this and not even realized it because no one pointed it out to you.
When I say the criminal justice system is just one building block of a network of institutions stacked against Black people, this is what I’m talking about. Everything works in tandem from the fact that these white guys were probably treated better from the moment they were arrested, to this coverage which is so obviously biased, to the sentencing which will likely be longer for the men on the right. The vast majority of people in that sequence don’t make the conscious decision to treat Black people differently — it just happens. And it keeps happening until someone recognizes it, so that’s why the Internet keeps pointing these things out. White privilege is having your college yearbook photo used in connection with your crime as opposed to your fresh mugshot.
Read more on So Let's Talk About It.
UPDATE: Here is the official statement from Iowa ABC affiliate KCRG (which also used the yearbook photos and mugshots). It goes into more detail about the discrepancy. KCRG's policy is to "use the best photographs of suspects available." The statement also explains the differing mugshot policies at the two stations where the suspects were jailed.