The double standard of words, images for people of color

Payton Gendron, 18, a white suspect in the Buffalo shooting, is called a teenager. Michael Brown Jr., 18, Black victim of a police shooting, is referred to as a man.

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Buffalo Community Continues To Grieve In Aftermath Of Racially Motivated Mass Shooting That Killed 10 People

People observe a memorial for the Buffalo shooting victims outside of Tops supermarket on May 20.

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As the tearful mists clear from the horrific, racially motivated massacre in Buffalo, New York, an insidious insult to injury is emerging.

On May 14, Payton S. Gendron, a white 18-year-old man, allegedly shot and killed 10 shoppers at a Buffalo grocery store. The victims were targeted because they were Black, police say.

Some news organizations and commentators have referred to Gendron as a “teen,” “teenager” and even a “child,” suggesting youth, vulnerability and a person in need of special consideration.

There is no such consideration for alleged Black perpetrators, and even victims. Last week, Steven W. Thrasher, an assistant journalism professor at Northwestern University, posted excerpts on Twitter from two different Associated Press articles.

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“Noting that in AP copy, 18-yeear (sic)-old Michael Brown was an “18-year-old Black man,” while 18-year-old Payton Gendron is a “white teenager,” Thrasher wrote.

In 2014, Michael Brown Jr. was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His death triggered protests nationwide and helped inspire the Black Lives Matter movement.

Thrasher added, “Social science has been clear on this for a long time: people raced as Black and gendered as male are perceived as older (so killed Mike Brown is a “man,” while alleged killer Payton Gendron is a “teenager”).”

In words and images, there is a double standard for people of color, one that favors that we are “the other.”

A May 16 National Public Radio analysis asked: “Some are calling the Buffalo suspect a ‘teenager.’ Is that a privilege of his race?”

“At least certain people who are vaguely college-aged often enjoy the benefits of being perceived as young and in need of adult protection — not just by the media, but also by law enforcement,” wrote Anastasia Tsioulcas, an NPR culture correspondent.

In 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, viciously gunned down nine Black people as they participated in a Bible study at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Police reportedly bought him a Burger King meal after he was arrested and taken into custody, Tsioulcas noted.

Kyle Rittenhouse, white and 17, shot and killed two people during the civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020. Rittenhouse claimed he was there to help protect property. According to PolitiFact, video taken 15 minutes before the shooting showed that “police thanked his group for their presence and gave them water.”

In contrast, Tsioulcas writes, “critics are naming well-known younger Black victims killed by police — like 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 23-year-old Elijah McClain — who did not enjoy such consideration.”

Experts call it “adultification bias.”

According to research published by the American Psychological Association, “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.”

In the 2014 study, researchers worked with a group of 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public universities in the U.S. The students were shown photographs of white, Black and Latino boys ages 10 to 17, along with descriptions of various crimes, then were asked to assess their age and innocence.

“The students overestimated the age of Blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes,” the study showed.

After the Buffalo murders, the AP issued a message to its staff, NPR reported.

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“We use the terms man or woman for those 18 and older,” it read. “It is important to be consistent in how we describe people of similar ages. The news media in general has been justifiably criticized for sometimes using man/woman to describe a Black 18-year-old, but teen for a white 18-year-old. ‘The 18-year-old’ can also work for a person of that age of any race. Again, be consistent.”

Yet, other news organizations have continued to refer to Gendron as “teenager” and “teen.”

Words and images matter. They can steal the humanity of people of color and feed the kind of racial hatred we saw in Buffalo, with murderous consequences.

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