The "Trayvon Martin effect" is the skewed portrayal of black Americans by the media as thugs and criminals even after they themselves are brutalized. And if we hoped the media had learned anything from their coverage of the gut-wrenching Trayvon Martin killing, it was that anyone can be misrepresented when images and messages are cherry picked from social media to create a false portrayal. Instead of describing Martin as the sweet kid his family said he was, the media grabbed onto pictures of him wearing a gold grill and posing like a tough guy. They also played up the fact that he had been caught with a bag of weed and a pipe at school in the days leading up to his death. Not that any of these details explained why he was shot and killed on the way home from a Skittles-and-iced-tea run.
And now, it's happening again. Teenager Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and it has ignited a firestorm. But even as people are enraged at the thought of another boy dead in an American street, Brown is being profiled in the mainstream media just like Trayvon. Instead of showing the boy with the bright smile with his family at his graduation, the image the media seems to have picked up is a grainy image from his Twitter feed of him throwing a peace sign, something vaguely reminiscent of a 1990s gang nod.
The absurdity of the media deciding to choose the most negative side of Brown, or Martin, to highlight has sparked a new Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown where people — mostly young, black men — post two distinctly different pictures portraying themselves as heroes and villains, thugs and leaders and everything in between. It shows us in the simplest terms how easily anyone with a social media presence could be vilified with hardly any effort at all.
What picture would America use to tell Jones's story? The one that shows him as a hero who defends our right to walk the streets at night, or the one that casts him in a light that some might see as more threatening?
The images take your breath away at how they so starkly show the very best and very worst of America, and how plagued by race bias the media still is in 2014. It also shows how quickly a life can be taken and manipulated by a country most comfortable with black Americans being depicted in the most clichéd and ominous terms. There sure aren't a lot of young white girls in America who need to contemplate how they would be described #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. This is the stuff social media was built for; to change the way we see the world.
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