If I’m not watching sports on television or something sports related, the only network that I watch is the Investigation Discovery (ID) network. The network does not in any way acknowledge race as a relevant category of analysis regarding its programming, but I would say that 95% of the stories feature crimes committed by white people against white people. When black men or boys are involved in an episode, the words “savage” and “thug” work there way into the language used in describing the crime. The network would most likely describe the crimes featured in their programs as “crimes of passion” stemming from adultery or jealousy; a fair number occur because of money: one spouse doesn’t want their ex to have any or because one spouse wants to benefit from the insurance policy they’ve taken out on the other one; and then, of course, there’s always some serial killer on the loose or there’s some maniac who wants to know what it feels like to murder someone.
Since these shows seldom feature black folk as victims or villains, not a word gets said about degeneracy, senseless violence, poor parenting, ignorance, or bad neighborhoods. In almost every episode, you hear all this stuff about how “they seemed like the perfect couple,” “we lived in a community where things like this just don’t happen,” “she was beautiful and didn’t deserve this (I guess if she were ugly there’d be no problem with her being raped and murdered).” Another really fascinating aspect of these shows is that the police officers and the detectives actually do investigative work! They dust for fingerprints, secure DNA evidence, look for clues, interview friends, family, and suspects. If you’ve read my previous posts on black boys in American culture, then you are well aware of the fact that none of this work goes into determining whether a black male is suspected of killing, raping, or recklessly eyeballing a white woman. When black boys are suspected of committing a crime, detective work involves getting in your squad car, spotting a random black boy, and deciding that he did it; that’s it, end of story. They will only fingerprint and take a DNA sample from the decided upon black criminal to add to his booking file. Then, a jury that has watched the ID network (before that Perry Mason, Matlock, and Murder She Wrote) and has seen the detective work featured in its programming assume that this black suspect must be guilty because those charged with serving and protecting our communities are always on the case…and so it is. These juries, however, should read more from W.E.B. DuBois. In the January 1913 issue of Crisis magazine, his discussion of race and crime reflects traces of the bloodlust we see in contemporary judgements:
Far too many, North and South, would preserve one foolish white woman if it costs the degradation of ten innocent colored girls, and who would greet the death of every black man in the world with a sigh of infinite relief.
I recently watched The Trials of Darryl Hunt on Netflix and the circumstances that I have been describing reflect what happened to him. Darryl Hunt spent nearly 20 years in a North Carolina penitentiary for raping and then stabbing to death a white journalist, Deborah Sykes, in 1984. Hunt had the great misfortune of being friends with a man named Sammy Mitchell.
Sammy Mitchell was the name given by an alleged witness in a 911 call reporting the crime against Sykes. Mitchell claimed he knew nothing about the call so the police decided to question his friend, 18-year-old Darryl Hunt, who then agreed to it and the rest follows the narrative of black boys and accusations of guilt–oh you did it: GUILTY!
Unlike the other cases I discussed in Parts 1 and 2, the police were never able to coerce Hunt into signing a false statement. For 18.5 years, he always maintained his innocence. Too, this is the only case, in the documentaries I’ve discussed, where the attorneys involved cited history as the most significant factor in the injustices Hunt suffered. One of his lawyers even says that Hunt wasn’t physically lynched but that he certainly was a victim of a “judicial lynching.”
Here are a few things that I’ve reflected on after watching The Trials of Darryl Hunt that will be helpful in raising my black son:
1.) Fairness is a fiction whenever you’re involved so you need to develop some coping skills to help manage this.
2.) Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of quoting Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” There has yet to be a torrential down pouring of justice in your case so expect a drought and pray for rain.
3 thoughts on “Models Monday: Investigation Discovery and Us (Black Boys in American Culture Part 3)”
Black people are under constant scrutiny; so, again I have to commend your decision to teach your son that the assessment of his behavior by others isn’t always worthwhile. Also, I couldn’t agree more. I believe it was right on this blog where I read that, “it is lethal for black people to not know the past”. I’m hopeful that one day soon a significant value will be placed on the lessons of the past, especially when they continue to show themselves in the present.
Recently in Philadelphia a cop was so rough with a young Black boy that she popped a vein in his testicles. What’s worse is his mother has been quoted as saying she blames herself for teaching her son to respect cops instead of fear them. My heart hurts for her. After the murder of Trayvon Martin there were many articles informing Black parents how to speak to their sons about the cops. I found the suggestions in these articles to be so uncritical. They led Black parents and their children to believe that if they showed deference and were docile all would be well. However, it is historically and contemporarily apparent that such rules do not apply to Black people. Because of this I must praise your guidelines for raising your Black son. They are so pragmatic and realistic.
I agree with you: black children cannot be reared to think that docility will be their salvation. Why do people put so much faith in law enforcement? There is no sustained period that I can think of where black people and folk of color could count on law enforcement for sanctuary. What James Baldwin wrote to his nephew in 1963 remains true today–if you are black: “you were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” To that end, claiming dignity and integrity for ones’ self is an affront to such a society. Without an investment in the value of dignity and integrity, where does the spirit to contest systemic brutality come from? To your point, social justice does not arise from docility.
Thank you for the feedback about the guidelines that I’m working on for my son. Recently, we asked his teacher to put his daily conduct sheet in an envelope where he could not see them because we wanted him to learn to value his own assessment of his experiences on his own terms. Not only did he seem to become more relaxed and confident, but we saw for ourselves what being released from daily surveillance could enable. He has really flourished without living with the experience of someone scrutinizing his every move; he’s free from the panopticon.
If you want to help your child make it out alive, you need to introduce him to the past. All that black folk accomplished during the modern civil rights movement was done through an awareness of the brutality of a police state and the anxiety of living under constant surveillance. Watching CSI or any configuration of Law and Order will not help black people live with the reality of police violence or to contest it. If you are teaching your child to be a wary viewer of representations of black folk in popular culture, then these shows might help; otherwise, you’re engaging in an exercise in cultivating delusions about the decency and the integrity of the criminal “justice” system.
Thanks for writing,