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Mugshots perpetuate criminalization of black youth

Black Lives Matter activist Muhiyidin Moye was shot and killed in New Orleans on Feb. 6.

Moye was a concerned citizen who was deeply troubled by the history of injustice and racism in the United States. He frequently worked with humanitarian groups and civic protests, articles about his death could have depicted any of those actions. Instead, Moye’s murder was plastered across social media with a mugshot, continuing the long trend of criminalizing people of color.

From protesting the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man fatally shot by police in North Charleston, to demonstrating and speaking to news outlets about racial inequality after the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston and protesting Trump’s Muslim ban in the United States, Moye was a key activist for the BLM movement.

Sonny Singh/The Cougar

He was committed to ending bigotry at any cost. One time, he leapt over police tape to snatch a Confederate flag from a protester in downtown Charleston.

After the Michael Brown shooting on Aug. 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, people on Twitter expressed their vehement disbelief of the usage of his mugshot to announce his death. By posting side-by-side pictures, Twitter users began using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to show how the media’s portrayal of victims is crucial.

The slogan “if it bleeds, it leads” is well-known in journalism, but the urgent nature of reporting on murder it is no justification for this dehumanization.

Broadcasting dramatic images and victims’ stories and overall suffering is what draws people’s attention. However, in this racial climate and with the overabundance of black deaths at the hands of police, the images we see and hashtags accompanied by another innocent death are not only tiring but far more influential than we realize.

“Black prejudice displayed in the media are a manifestation of mass incarceration and other tactics used for racial suppression,” said Richard Igbinoba, the president of the UH chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. “This medium targets the minority by presenting images of inaccurate representation.”

This misappropriation of photos implies a dangerous reality: one in which it is justified to kill an unarmed individual purely because their skin color is threatening to you; one in which victims of murder and assault are presented as the criminals before the story is even told.

News reports tend to use negative and harsher headlines when a story is about a person of color, in comparison to the more sympathetic ones they give to the white population.

“This type of protest feeds into the narrative already given to the black community and stunts the progression of past and present black empowerment movements,” said Helina Zinabu, an officer in  Students of East Africa, a club at UH. “This ruins the image of black people as a whole and makes us out to be robbers, killers, thugs and other negative stereotypes when we’re just regular American citizens as well.”

When these victims are painted in a negative light, it robs them from any sympathy while tainting their images. When the news media uses mugshots or inappropriate pictures of the victim, those outlets are manipulating the public into believing these people were criminals and that their deaths were well deserved.

Yet news media repeatedly goes out of their ways to boost a white suspect’s character, carrying quotes from relatives or acquaintances that often paint them in a humane or positive light.

White suspects are often privileged enough to be exhibited as “lone wolves” as news outlets exhibit a sense of disbelief at the suspects’ actions and behavior, which removes any sense of responsibility and excuses their heinous behavior.

There’s no doubt that racial prejudice plays a role in our society, especially when it comes to leaving blacks and other minorities disadvantaged in employment, representation, education, the criminal justice system and more. This mentality traps us in a vicious cycle of criminalizing people of color before they get a chance to defy this stereotype.

That criminalization extends to children.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, more than 3 million students are suspended from school — often for vague and subjective infractions such as “willful defiance” and “disrespect” — amounting to countless hours of lost time where they could have been learning every year.

As a result, black students are denied an opportunity to learn and are punished for the same adolescent behaviors that their other peers display but are often not disciplined for. Outside of schools, young black people are criminalized in ways that limit their life chances at every point. Data from 2010 shows that while black youth comprised 17 percent of all youth, they represented 31 percent of all arrests. These disparities persist despite the fall of juvenile “crime” rates.

Among these youth arrests, young blacks are more likely to be referred to a juvenile court than their white peers and are more likely to be processed with little to no chances of being diverted. They are also more likely to be sent to solitary confinement and transferred to adult facilities, despite being children.

This is the type of treatment that steals the dignity of young blacks, forcing them onto lifelong pathways of criminalization, diminished opportunity and crumpled self-esteem. It is difficult to pave a path to success when every statistic and odd is set against you.

Instead of spending billions of dollars on the jail system and incarcerating our youth, the government should be working on providing more resources and offering better programs for underprivileged youth.

By using the same effort currently used to incarcerate colored children, the U.S. government can instead educate and provide for them, creating opportunities for better lives and perhaps creating a future Moye dreamed of: in which racial inequality is no longer accepted.

Opinion assistant editor Bethel Biru is a broadcast journalism senior and can be reached at [email protected].

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