From “brute” to “thug:” the demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America
The synonymy of Blackness with criminality is not a new phenomenon in America. Documented historical accounts have shown how myths, stereotypes, and racist ideologies led to discriminatory policies and court rulings that fueled racial violence in a post-Reconstruction era and has culminated in the exponential increase of Black male incarceration today. Misconceptions and prejudices manufactured and disseminated through various channels such as the media included references to a “brute” image of Black males. In the 21st century, this negative imagery of Black males has frequently utilized the negative connotation of the terminology “thug.” In recent years, law enforcement agencies have unreasonably used deadly force on Black males allegedly considered to be “suspects” or “persons of interest.” The exploitation of these often-targeted victims' criminal records, physical appearances, or misperceived attributes has been used to justify their unlawful deaths. Despite the connection between disproportionate criminality and Black masculinity, little research has been done on how unarmed Black male victims, particularly but not exclusively at the hands of law enforcement, have been posthumously criminalized. This paper investigates the historical criminalization of Black males and its connection to contemporary unarmed victims of law enforcement. Action research methodology in the data collection process is utilized to interpret how Black male victims are portrayed by traditional mass media, particularly through the use of language, in ways that marginalize and de-victimize these individuals. This study also aims to elucidate a contemporary understanding of race relations, racism, and the plight of the Black male in a 21-century “post-racial” America.