On May 5, 2018 Childish Gambino silenced the global masses with a music video so shockingly on point, one couldn’t help but to hope that this visual, lyrical representation of today’s America had the potential to open the eyes of many who have chosen to keep them firmly shut.
‘This is America’ shows Gambino happily dancing, grimacing in the face of his immediate environment crumbling under the strategic violence and murder inspired by the systematic racism that has prevailed, and only worsened, under the Trump administration. Jumping back and forth between past — the KKK, the Jim Crow pose — and present — abandoned and burning vehicles filmed by anonymous figures — symbolism, it emphasizes how little has changed for the black people of America. Only now, we are seeing a modern-day version of the lynching and slavery that dominated the early 1900s.
Within two weeks of the video’s release, it was parodied by the likes of Canadian comedian Nicole Arbour and, yes, even Kermit the Frog. Arbour’s intentions may have stemmed from a good place, but by using Gambino’s platform to raise awareness about women’s rights in America, she is circuitously redirecting the focus of the video on to herself. Yes, women’s rights are an important subject, but in using the backdrop of a black artist’s work — the kind that criticises the white response to issues faced by the black community — to raise awareness, she is outing herself as every bit as ignorant as the media profiting on black bodies. And while these types of parodies and distasteful memes are just an accepted part of our internet culture, these reactions directly play into what Childish Gambino was looking to convey in his video in the first place: our society has become so desensitized to the seriousness of our socio-political climate, it simply continues to dance in the face of adversity.
In his lyrics, Gambino describes his ‘celly’ (cellular phone) as a ‘tool’ — which is exactly what it has become for black Americans. It has become a tool to document the racist abuse, violence and murder inflicted on black people for — what exactly? Fitting the profile of — whom exactly? Persisting stereotypes have spawned a culture of racists and xenophobes so adamant to protect their ‘land of the free’ from perceived otherness. Even those deemed to protect the vulnerable — i.e., the police force and government institutions — have become cold-hearted killers. Had it not been for bystanders using their mobile phones to document these scenes — as in the cases of Philandro Castile, Erica Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray — facts surrounding the arrests and shootings of the unarmed men mentioned above would have been twisted in favour of the white officers responsible for their deaths.
In Walter Scott’s case, the officer responsible, Michael Slager, stated that Scott had gotten control over his taser and that he felt ‘threatened’. But the video clearly shows Slager dropping the taser after hitting Scott with it. Upon firing shots, Slager returns to retrieve the taser from where he had dropped it, then walks over to Scott’s lifeless body and places it next to him. In Philandro Castile’s case, the responsible police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, repeatedly stated that Castile had the gun in his hand — which the victim had calmly informed Yanez of and was licenced to carry. In actual fact, paramedics found it in his pocket as they were preparing to transport him to the hospital. Such framing tactics seem to have become a norm in these cases, despite the use of dashcams and bodycams, which have made, as Childish Gambino insists, the celly one of the most important and necessary tools for the black community.
Guilty police officers resort to the twisting of facts because they know they play into the public’s perception of the black community — black men in particular — as criminal and dangerous. In Paulette Campbell’s thesis, ‘Police Race: A Case Study of Media Coverage of Police Shootings’, she examines the treatment of police shootings by the media and how it differs depending on the victim’s race. Due to the black communities’ association with crime, drugs and violence, the media — and, consequently, the public — are quick to draw conclusions and rely on possible past misdemeanours or hearsay irrelevant to the facts at hand. Having analysed newspaper reports of police shootings of black and white victims as reported between the 1980s and 1990s, Campbell found that they:
‘represented a way of refusing to recognize Black humanity and served the collective memory of past dominance over the primitive inferior. The spectacle (referring to the representation of the black community) encouraged readers to evaluate evidence in a certain way and usually left little sympathy for the victim’.
Arguably, little has changed over the last three decades and beyond.
One of the many absurd things Yanez stated in relation to his shooting of Philandro Castile was:
‘I thought, I was gonna die, and I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her second-hand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing, then what, what care does he give about me?’
Naturally, Castile’s marijuana use then became a primary focus of the defence, further contributing to the stereotypes that have spawned the systematic racism of America, and the world. And these stories, disgustingly enough, act as great fodder for trashy ‘news’ outlets and publications reaping in the profits on account of another black body they can dehumanize, along with their uneducated and ignorant audience of likely Trump supporters.
While it may seem as though the media is taking its stance in raising awareness about racial disparity, it is actually contributing to and profiting from the narrative that has created the divide in the first place. Instead of treating these cases with the sensitivity, facts and respect the victims and their families deserve, media outlets are far more focused on finding a story’s selling point — even if it is at the expense of those affected and particularly if they can find ways to excuse the culprits.
Let’s face it: racism sells and as long as it continues to do so, the media will keep on providing the narratives their viewers happily lap up without further investigation.