Media historically portrays youth of color as older, more dangerous

The press has a habit of covering the actions of white adults and youth of color quite differently. 

According to a study published in 2014 by the American Psychological Association, Black boys as young as 10 years old aren’t viewed the same as their white peers. Black boys are viewed as older than they are and they are likely to face police violence if accused of a crime.

“For one, these racist perceptions date all the way back to U.S. slavery,” said Horace Hall, a professor of education, criminal ethnic studies and African Black Diaspora at DePaul. “Black youth, perceived as chattel, served in the same labor roles as Black adults. As such, Black youth suffered the same dehumanization and were rarely perceived as children, much more worthy of the playtime white youth.”

The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children by DePaulia on Scribd

One of the authors of the research study explains that Black children aren’t afforded the protection of child-like innocence. He says that Black children may be seen as adults by the time they are 13 years old. 

The media’s portrayal of Robert Aaron Long, the shooter behind the Atlanta spa shootings, versus their portrayal of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old shooting victim in Chicago, is a prime example of the study.

Georgia law enforcement explained that Long not only had a sex addiction, but he was also having an extremely bad day. First of all, how did they know he had a sex addiction and what did it have to do with the shooting? Second of all, why on Earth would a bad day end with someone shooting various spas, with many of the victims being Asian?

In regards to Adam Toledo, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn had written an opinion piece titled, “Let’s wait before turning slain 13-year-old Adam Toledo into a martyr.” 

Zorn begins the article by saying that it’s too early to say what actually happened in regards to the shooting of Toledo. He explains that community members and activists have the right to answers; he explains that they may be right in the fact that the officers may have fired without justification and Adam Toledo is a martyr. 

Or — yes, there’s an “or” — a thorough investigation may find police shot in self-defense. He makes it known once again that it’s too early to make an opinion.

He also makes it a point that 13-year-olds aren’t “inherently angelic,” and he lists off instances where 13-year-olds were arrested or convicted of heinous crimes, all of them related to murder. 

“…Using his age as shorthand for innocence and harmlessness in this situation generates heat but sheds no light,” Zorn explains. “He was not a ‘baby.’ A 13-year-old pointing a gun, if that’s what he did, is as dangerous as a 23- or 33-year-old…”

Black and Brown children, as the research study suggests, are robbed of the innocence that’s associated with childhood and they are matured by several years.

“I think there’s actually research that shows that police are more likely to overestimate the age of Black youth compared to white youth,” said Robin Hoecker, an assistant professor of journalism at DePaul. “That goes back into centuries of history of criminalizing Black people and thinking they’re bigger and scarier than they actually are.”

The media has a history of playing into racist stereotypes. Hall explained that racist stereotypes are so embedded in American psychology that people tend not to recognize them, even when it’s blatantly obvious for those who experience it firsthand. 

“If media outlets and those who report the news are not conscious of racist stereotypes and tropes, then the unfortunate outcome is that false notions like that of ‘superpredators,’” Hall said. 

Such perceptions are embraced by the media and also internalized by those who interact with people of color. These perceptions and stereotypes can be attributed to the lack of representation in media and in the newsroom. 

Hoecker explains that there’s not only an underrepresentation, but there’s also a misrepresentation.

“So, when [Black and Brown] people are mentioned in the news, they’re more likely to be in the sports section or the entertainment section or in crime sections,” Hoecker says. “And again, that goes back to… this deep culture that we have [with the] 400 years of racism within this country.”

With the journalism industry still very much a white man’s club, it’s hard to break away from these harsh perceptions and stereotypes. Adam Toledo faced this harsh reality, even after his death.