According to the US Code of Federal Regulations, the definition of terrorism is the “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” Though this definition may seem simple, the decision to label a crime a “Terrorist act’ is fraught with racial and political connotations that complicate its use. In light of the recent violent White supremacist protests in Virginia, there have many calls to deem the event an egregious act of terrorism. Many politicians who have commented on the attack deem the ramming of a car into a crowd of anti-protesters, killing one and wounding at least 8 more, perpetrated by an alleged sympathizer of the movement, an unequivocal act of terrorism. The comparison of these acts to the provided definition make the label seem obvious, but as western media is apt to do, news outlets hesitate to refer to the act as terrorism.
There is a distinct racial disparity in the media’s use of the word ‘terrorism’. Brown-skinned perpetrators are more quickly labelled ‘Terrorists’ and deemed a danger to American society than their white counterparts. The Boston Marathon Bombers and the Pulse nightclub shooter were almost immediately subjected to speculation of ties to Islam, but Dylann Roof was labelled as a ‘loner’ by the Washington Post. Media attempted to understand him and his childhood, speculating about whether he suffered from mental illness rather than criminalizing him to the extent that was done in the above-mentioned cases. Fox News even published an article asking “Why [no one] helpe[d] Dylann Roof” White perpetrators like Roof are given the benefit of the doubt and are humanized, whilst their darker-skinned counterparts are demonized before any other information is given.
But why does this matter? It was not as if the media failed to maintain that Roof’s actions were reprehensible. It wasn’t as if the criminals involved in those other crimes weren’t terrorists. But this disparity reinforces dangerous stereotypes. The characterizations of Roof as a ‘loner’, separates him from the white community and characterize his actions as solely a representation of his own twisted beliefs, rather than the reflection of the community in which he was raised. However, the use of the term ‘terrorist’ to refer almost exclusively to Muslims in western media, creates a mythos of these acts being reflective of Islam as a whole, thus framing an entire community as a threat to society, rather than isolating these criminals and judging them individually. This coverage makes their crimes seem symptomatic of a problem within the Muslim community, while Roof’s can be written off as unchecked mental instability. News outlets called him by name and relayed character endorsements from his family, whereas the monikers “The Boston Marathon Bombers” or “Pulse Nightclub shooter” were ubiquitous, whilst their names were relegated to extraneous details in long-winded articles.
“[The] media [has] discovered that Islamophobia sells”
The contrast between the portrayal of Caucasian criminals and criminals of colour is also obvious in less high profile crimes as well. Particularly regarding the portrayal of African-Americans in news media. African Americans are overrepresented as perpetrators and underrepresented as victims, thus exaggerating the criminality of the black community and erasing the more sympathetic stories. Dana Mastro, a Professor, and Vice-Chair in the Department of Communication at the University of California reports that African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be represented as criminals than police officers on television news—a proportion inconsistent with U.S. Department of Labor statistics. This perpetuates stereotypes of black, and particularly black male violence, which has been prevalent since the lynching era. Representations of black criminals are dehumanized in order to make the criminals seem more threatening. Black perpetrators are more than 50% likely to not be named in their coverage in comparison to 34.7% for their white counterpart. This dehumanizes the suspect and emphasizes their race as an identifying factor rather than focusing on the individual themselves, thus increasing audience’s association with “Blacks” and crime. Much like the media coverage of Muslim versus white terrorists, these representations make the crimes of these men seem symptomatic of a larger problem with Black people in general, whilst the crimes of white men are understood to be a reflection of the individual rather than their surrounding community.
Exaggerated media coverage that perpetuates the stereotypes of the prevalence of criminality in black people and terrorism amongst Muslims is inherently damaging. Though the individual stories may be true, their presentation as symptomatic problems of a larger community gives stock to the hateful and fearful beliefs of groups like the Alt-right. News outlets, the apparent gatekeepers of the truth, consciously show specific stories and frame them in an incendiary manner thus ensuring that only the fraction of the pictures they decide to show comes to be understood as the whole truth.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
–Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
It must be understood, that I am in no way sympathetic to criminals no matter their race, but as a Black woman I am sensitive to the damaging effects of media characterizations that blame an entire community for an individual’s actions. If ‘Terrorism” describes the crimes of attacks perpetrated by Muslims, similar cases by white perpetrators should also be labelled as such. The events in Virginia will again put the media’s portrayal of domestic terrorism under scrutiny. Will this be treated as an event spearheaded by a fringe group that in no way is reflective of the views of a larger body, or as a dangerous, and frankly terrifying culmination of the rising wave of right-wing hatred? This article is not in any way a call to stop calling terrorists like the Boston Marathon Bombers what they are. However, it is a call for the media to reflect upon its representation of criminals. They must determine whether they are using racialized fear to ratchet up ratings or if they are truly representing their content accurately. Words are powerful and their connotations echo, and the lack of the word ‘Terrorism’ in recent headlines, is deafening.