Sandra Bland and Local Media’s Systemic Racism

Police-released dash camera footage of Sandra Bland's death reveals an outrageous abuse of police authority.

Police-released dash camera footage of Sandra Bland’s death reveals an outrageous abuse of police authority.

Few events make for a larger indictment of the excesses of the criminal justice system in the United States than the recent events surrounding the death of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; her tragic arrest—which began with her switching lanes without a signal in order to get out of an officer’s way—and subsequent death while behind bars are clear examples of government overreach; it’s a state misusing the terms for its monopoly on force.

The details behind the initial arrest were made clear with Tuesday’s release of the police dash camera which recorded the incident. Sandra’s crime was moving out of an officer’s lane without signaling. When the officer decided that she couldn’t smoke in her own car, and she wouldn’t indulge him by putting it out, he forcibly removed her from her car at the end of a taser and abusively arrested her. The incident left no room for doubt: obviously the police officer performed an unwarranted arrest that was particularly disturbing; what was done should deeply disturb us all.

For those that think this was an isolated incident—only one abusive cop among many—the most popular comments on local media outlets’ coverage of the events demonstrates just the opposite: a culture of white supremacy and blind deference to authority.

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Comment after comment after comment shifts the blame from the oppressor to the victim—a common propaganda technique. The officer had a “pleasant tone.” She gave him “grief” and “ran her mouth”; Sandra needed to be more “polite.” There are multiple calls for Nazi-era deference to authority: The real problem is the “growing lack of respect for authority” in the country; “[i]f she would have just said Thank You Sir… she would still be here.” The reactionaries are out in full force: the public’s alarm and vocal response–in the form of protest and other actions–is “a war going on here with our own people!” Further, the media is “trying to run my country into the ground” by reporting on the incident. Oh, and “we need GOD back in America!” Presumably this is so that black people will learn their place—the racism is barely concealed beneath the surface.

This is made all the more alarming coming from self-proclaimed “freedom-loving, small-government conservatives.” There’s nothing “small government” or “free” about total obedience to abusive, unaccountable authorities; these comments do not display American values, but something else.

These leading comments on local media pages illustrate the racist ideology that makes up today’s local, “5-o’clock-news” outlets. Those that digest local media content and post on their Facebook page appear to be unquestionably racist with a world-view that’s bolstered and seldom challenged by the “5 o’clock news,” with its endless parade of black criminality and not much else. Indeed, the local media is a central part of the environment in which their racism was nurtured. It is here that we uncover and important source of systemic racism: the local media.

The local media are corporations, and corporate media has always framed things in ways that are acceptable to the powerful sectors of society. The local media are a business whom’s mission it is to earn a profit. Institutionally, the local media are relatively rich people, selling a product (audiences, usually middle to upper-income audiences, because this increases advertising revenue) to other rich people (advertisers.) In its attempts to minimize investigative expenses, government officials, such as county sheriffs and district attorneys, are given uncritical platforms by local media to pursue their own agendas; in the case of Waller County, Sheriff Glenn Smith and District Attorney Elon Mathis are keen to present their law enforcement tenures as non-racist as possible. When it comes to structural incentives for the media in the United States to pursue a conservative agenda, the list goes on.

The result is stale content that serves the interest of powerful sectors of society; the content is familiar to everyone: the weather, endless reels of poor people—usually black—engaged in crime, and pointless banalities. In his book, The Rich Get Richer And The Poor Get Prison, Jeffrey Reiman points out the fallacy of focusing on poor, often black, criminality as a major, newsworthy event that threatens our social well-being. Reiman shows us that the soft, often non-existent, treatment of white-collar crime by the media is unwarranted: it’s of comparable damage–and more–when compared to the crimes people fear–those that poor blacks would commit–using the most essential indicators (loss of life, injury, loss of property, etc.)

Simply looking at the perils facing Americans at their place of work alone, and using conservative assumptions, Reiman estimates that for every 8,250 cases of murder caused by crime, 54,928 American workers are killed “just from trying to make a living.” For every 425,000 cases of physical harm caused by crime, 2,300,000 workers are injured. The moral content is that much–or most–of these work-related injuries and death are due to employer negligence in the form of outright indifference, as well as unrealistic production quotas, that are likely to lead to injury or death. Reiman concludes by stating that, “[there is] growing evidence that for every two American citizens murdered by thugs, more than six American workers are killed by the recklessness of their bosses and the indifference of their government.”

The real problems of society are ignored by the media, as this will upset the powerful sectors of society that the media relies on for revenue, and the population is given a false sense of security: if there were problems in society, it is popularly thought, then the media would cover it; it’s the classical view of the media in its “Jeffersonian role” as a check on power—this is not how the media operates in the United States.

On the same day as its coverage of the Sandra Bland dash cam, KHOU Channel 11’s Facebook page featured an article about a high-speed chase involving a black male. The top comment illustrates the point: local media, with its over-emphasis on the threat posed by poor, black America, cultivates not just racist ideology, but actual racists as well. “America needs to stop pretending a flag is the cause of our country’s race issue. Behavior is the cause of our race issue, and it needs to be addressed.” In other words, we’re (not?) racist, it’s just that blacks are lazy/criminal/etc. This is quintessential racism. Readers will also observe the not-so-subtle “misunderstanding” of the recent Confederate Flag scandal—the potency of its racist symbolism—as well as a categorical denial of the long-lasting effects caused by the absolute indecencies of slavery (see an explanation of this legacy here.)

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There were also endless claims in the comment sections that the media are “too liberal,” and that they have reported sensationally on the Sandra Bland arrest in their irresponsible quest for “ratings.” Apparently it’s hard for these people to imagine how a non-conservative media would *actually* treat the issue, much less a “liberal” media. It might start by proving context: According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Waller County is among the worst in the State of Texas when it comes to the racial disparities in drug-related interdiction: even though studies show that whites and blacks use illicit drugs at about the same rate, blacks in Waller County are more than 6 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In a letter to Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith in 2013, ACLU-TX was explicit about the problem: “This disparity in arrest rates in your jurisdiction suggests that your department is targeting blacks for enforcement of marijuana possession laws. That kind of biased policing offends the Constitution and our country’s commitment to equal treatment before the law.” As the case of Sandra Bland is one in which a traffic stop led to an arrest, one would think that a “liberal” media would present statistics like these.

KHOU 11 also had a story on Sandra Bland that featured stenography journalism of Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis. “The people that are coming from the outside, have no idea what it’s like to live here,” said Mathis. The “outside agitators,” according to the article’s summary of Mathis, are spreading the “perception” of Waller County as “backwater” and “racist”—it’s unclear who is calling Waller County “backwater,” but it takes little effort to suspect racism. The article tries to clear these charges by citing statistics that suggest that traffic stops by Prairie View and Waller County Police Departments are not racially tinged–though it should be noted that the particular arrest of Sandra Bland was made by a state trooper. However, in an extremely hot state like Texas, where tinted windows are seemingly the norm, this says very little. In fact, this “investigation” by the media is woefully lacking, and creates the perception that maybe there really is something to Mathis’ view; but, as the ACLU report indicates, once pulled over, searches by the police that have the possibility of uncovering marijuana and winding you up in jail have a striking correlation to the color of your skin.

A lot of the “misunderstanding” of racism in America–and subsequent denial–surrounds the actual form that racism takes; nobody thinks they’re a racist. Michael Ferrer, a white friend of mine who is from the surrounding area, put it best when he reflected on the incident:

“[T]he reason this hits so close to home—not just literally, but figuratively—is because it reminds me of the apathy of so many white people back at home who will gloss over this story, if they hear about it at all. It reminds me of every “benign” racist joke (people calling smart black kids “oreos” for “acting white”) and overtly prejudiced epithet (the guy in Gym who yelled the n-word at passing people of color) that I saw, and was often complacent in, during my eighteen years in Cypress. And it reminds me of the violence—physical, economic and psychological—that is incubated and nourished by these supposedly smaller acts of bigotry.”

Indeed, it doesn’t take Mathus’ “outside agitators” to see the intense racism: I am actually from Waller County; I grew up and went to school, K-12, a graduate from Waller High School, just minutes from the site of Sandra Bland’s arrest. I grew up in an environment of intense racism. I am reminded of the abundant cases of “benign racism” that I was often, like Ferrer, complacent in while growing up in Waller. “Little things” tend to escalate during confrontations with law enforcement, and I can confirm through experience that Mathus’ attempts to spin Waller as unique, and not racist, are completely off base; nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that it’s much different than the rest of the United States.

It may be difficult to tell if individual acts like Sandra Bland’s arrest were racist, but this is not the stopping point for intelligent people. The process of science is never to be certain–that’s impossible–but rather to produce the most likely tentative assumptions based on available evidence–it’s a point put best by America’s greatest physicist, Richard Feynman. Speaking with two decades of experience dealing with white America as it appears in Waller County, and with extensive available evidence documenting racism at all levels in the criminal justice system, from the federal level down to the local, Waller County level, the answer should be clear: racism is wanted for some serious questioning.

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