It’s Complicated: Explaining The Role of Race in Police Brutality

 

I’ve opened the past two semesters talking about police brutality on the first day of class in my Cross-Cultural Communication course at Lipscomb University. This is a required course for communication and journalism majors to grasp the challenges of communicating in today’s complex society so we go there and get pretty deep. Building communication strategies to address obstacles and opportunities within a client’s organizational culture is something I know very well but grappling with the thorny issues of our times with a room full of college students means I must dig deep and go all the way. There are a wealth of topics I could start the semester with instead but it just so happens the biggest story in the news at the time concerned violence, race and injustice – in fall we dealt with cases of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and in spring, the cases of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. It looks as if perhaps this coming fall in August I will unfortunately and again have new content on the same topic – now with the incident in Mckinney, Texas and who knows what else between now and then.

For all of these tragic instances, a firestorm of commentary and disagreement ensued across news media and social media, and protests arose all over the world. Some students wonder how this could happen in the United States. For others, unfortunately, police brutality and discrimination are all too familiar. Yet for a large majority of my students at our private, Christian, predominately white University, police brutality and the racial disparities that accompany the topic are foreign concepts. They are often confused but curious and compassionate in their attempt to make sense of tough issues that even us mature adults struggle to comprehend. Naturally, they are faced with anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief and lots of questions.

“The victim had to be doing something wrong, right Professor Ellis? Wouldn’t the news media tell us if something was done unfairly?”

“Professor Ellis, wasn’t this an issue during segregation? Why are we seeing so much about it today?”

“But Professor Ellis, does this mean most cops are racist or that we should fear them?”

“So Professor Ellis, how do we fix stuff like this?”

My answer to them: “Well, it’s complicated.”

I could share with you how I lecture on the basis of these questions but that’s a 2000-word essay, not a blog post. I tell my students we have many things to consider…

  • We’d need to consider how racism has always played a key role in our country and how it became embedded in our criminal justice system. We also need to talk about juries, how difficult it can be to find the truth and how media coverage and social media conversations impact the perceptions of what we believe is true. We’d need to consider the origins of racism and the repetitive narratives of injustice, violence and poverty in communities of color to examine the correlations.
  • We’d need to look at the public’s general perception about the problem of police brutality and its history in America from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s to the transition from community policing to military policing in the 1980’s. We’d need to examine data that shows if you are black you are far more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than you would if you are white, and how that knowledge has perpetuated a relationship of conflict between police officers and the black community. We’d need to talk about how the outrage makes people feel hopeless and inspired to react in protesting or even rioting.
  • We’d need to examine the disturbing trend in the news media where a person is often criminalized when they have been killed by a police officer rather than insisting they deserved to a chance to be charged, brought to trial and have remained among the living. We’d need to research at the trend of citizen journalism becoming a powerful catalyst for the narrative of injustice as a tool for breaking news. We’d need ask if we can discern by only looking at the mobile phone footage of a bystander how an unarmed citizen is to blame for the overcorrection, extra force or lack of control displayed by police officers.
  • We’d need to assess how police administrators are training officers and addressing criticism since police brutality has gotten so much national attention recently. We’d need to consider that what a police officer could despise more than anything is when their authority is challenged, regardless of your color, and that could get you thrown in jail or met with excessive force. We should acknowledge that there are officers and administrators who understand how this crisis is impacting public trust and are trying to handle the issue with care and concern because their profession requires that they put their lives on the line everyday.
  • We’d need to consider our role in calling out injustice as a social and moral responsibility when the dynamic of the unknown convicts us to acknowledge stereotypes and reveal blind spots. We’d need to be honest about the relative silence over unfair treatment when it doesn’t impact us directly. We should admit we are imperfect people who have a tendency to limit our perspective, opinions, beliefs and comfort zones to be in agreement with those who relate to us most. We need to remember that what affects one affects us all, or at least it should.

I told you. It’s complicated.

I have the next generation of FOX news anchors, CNN producers, national radio hosts, online news editors, public information officers, non-profit leaders and crisis PR practitioners in my classroom. They will shape public opinion and determine how we consume messages through media. These students are studying to go into newsrooms to write stories and headlines about issues they’ve never witnessed personally, go into communities that may not look like the places they grew up in with cameras to capture the conflict of people who don’t look like them, go into companies to help generate awareness among a target audience whose lifestyles they can’t relate to, or go into organizations to help senior leaders to communicate about issues that might make them uncomfortable.

If I don’t get real with them, who will?

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Now, I could be the kind of professor that ignores the cultural sensitivities that surface from answering these questions or I could be the kind that challenges students and myself to explore our self-identities and look at how fit they into the world. This is where we must consider our younger generations who are confused but curious about their role in improving our society in ways that enlighten and empower them. Violence, race and injustice – the anchors of the cultural discourse around police brutality – aren’t the easiest concepts to grasp and are no longer the kinds of one-time shallow conversations we can sweep under the rug. Ignoring the facts dehumanizes us. They have to be talked about on an ongoing basis every time a story comes out.

I challenge you, whether a professional, professor or parent, to start having open discussion about cultural issues with the young students in your communities. Address your personal biases internally, dig for more than what is reported through media, be okay with the discomfort of disagreement when a different opinion is expressed, search for a historical context connected to these issues we’ve increasingly seen in the news, seek meaningful conversations with people who’ve experienced the cultural struggles that you haven’t, and empower a young student to intelligently assess their role in doing something about the issues.

I’d like to hear from you.

How has your perspective of race and police brutality been impacted by recent events?

How has media coverage of the current events heightened your cultural sensitivity to racial issues and police discrimination?

How do you intend to help the next generation of leaders understand and address difficult issues like race, violence and injustice?

No Apologies Needed

We must be in a season of bad judgments. Something is in the air. Is Mercury in Retrograde again?

From educators to celebrities and politicians to news anchors, the slip of insensitivity has forced our attention to address the cultural nuisances that are often hidden by societal attempts to get along and diversify.

Lest we forget, we no longer live in a world where thoughts and beliefs are private thanks to the internet. We are expressive. We are bold. We are challenged. Yet, we are insensitive and often care less about who we hurt or how we do it.

But then, you have leaders like University of Oklahoma President David Boren who had members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity kicked off the campus following the release of a video reportedly showing fraternity members singing a racist chant and then issued a bold statement on behalf of the university. I am not familiar with this Oklahoma community but I do know a great deal about communities of higher education.

From KOCO.com

From KOCO.com

Within higher education, the creation and cultivation of an environment of inclusion on college campuses is about strategic intentionality. It starts with the administration, faculty, alumni and professional mentors practicing and communication the integrity of inclusive excellence. Students must see that kind of leadership through transparency, and when they do, they will follow and then lead their peers to cultural collaboration and sincere acceptance with no apologies needed.

This kind of inclusive excellence was displayed perfectly in President Boren’s message. He did not issue an apology. He didn’t have to. He stood firmly and sincerely on what was intolerable and took immediate action.

He released this statement Monday morning:

To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.

David L. Boren
President
University of Oklahoma

When your organization faces public scrutiny at the cultural immaturity and insensitivity of its members, an apology may feel like a slap in the face to the public’s intelligence and to the character of those who were harmed. In these tense times, the public won’t easily accept an apology. Proud expressions of blatant bigotry cannot be matched suddenly with empathy for those toward which the hate is directed, especially when the evidence is not felt or perceived but it is visual and viral. The public will believe and internalize the initial expression to which they were exposed. This could happen to any organization, university, brand or individual. Boren took the high road – the only acceptable road in this case – and held his people accountable for their actions. Though his statement did not address whether the behavior of the students on the videotape is reflective of some deeply rooted, perpetually overlooked cultural issues on their campus, that too will soon be exposed to the public if it exists and has been allowed to live under his leadership.

More than a PR crisis, this kind of act represents a human crisis. What is most needed at the moment is the declaration of community, a recommitment to cultural acceptance, a call to social responsibility and a swift kick in the conscious.

No apologies needed.

For The Record

The second chance story of Ted Williams, a homeless man whose golden voice went viral, undoubtedly shows the power of social media. He became an overnight success drawing national attention and a wealth of job offers after The Columbus Dispatch uploaded a video of the former panhandler holding a cardboard sign and showcasing his incredible talent on an Ohio roadside. Yet, after a week-long run of being everyone’s favorite comeback kid, an altercation with his daughter at a Hollywood hotel recently led to the arrest of Williams who is also a convicted criminal and recovering addict.

The immediate highs and lows of this story show how media attention can impact a person without a support system. Publicity and sudden prosperity cannot treat real underlying life issues. If anything, attention from media will fully expose the exact personal problems that may have indirectly led someone to a point of notoriety. For the record: In news, a rise is never faster than a fall. I hope Williams gets the support he needs – not just for his career but for his life.

Here’s a great perspective from The Washington Post.

Credit: Kramer/NBC

Victory for Vick’s PR

It’s going to be an interesting season for the team of PR and image consultants who are delivering the winning strategy for reinstated NFL player Michael Vick. Known as one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league, Vick’s rise to gridiron fame and fall to criminal intent has proven to be a PR challenge to tackle.

Without knowing the details of the team’s members and plans, their attempt to carefully rebrand Vick and map out a road to redemption following his release from federal prison is turning out to be a PR victory. nfl_a_vick_480

Since Vick’s admitted act of animal cruelty, his team has made a public effort to present him in a repented and reformed fashion. They recently positioned Vick to confess his sins and express immense guilt on CBS “60 Minutes” along side former NFL coach Tony Dungy, commissioned by the league to be his mentor, and President of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, to be his community partner. We all know you’ve got to have a bit of cache to tell your story on “60 Minutes” and the PR team that knows Vick has to come back with some credibility.

Whether his remorse is scripted or sincere, you must admit his team is gaining yards toward the goal. Yet, the ultimate test of a winning strategy is whether the public believes you. Vick is going to have to walk the walk. If he doesn’t, his PR team will end up seeing a bigger chunk from that first $1.6 million to keep him on the straight and narrow. Judging by the execution and perceived outcome, Vick has gotten his money’s worth, but the team must continue to move strategically so the public won’t think Vick’s efforts are contrived.

Personally, I’ve always been an advocate for second chances. Only time will tell how Vick shapes up while his PR team shows out. Our culture often forgives, and, most times, forgets the sins of public figures. So the more touchdown passes Vick throws, the further his wrongdoings will be from our minds.

Bad Publicity is NEVER Good

This month has been pretty busy for the sports and entertainment industries. Events like the Grammy Awards, Oscars, Super Bowl and NBA All-Star Weekend are enough to keep a celeb on the red carpet and a PR pro on their trail. But with all the glitz and glamour of star-studded events, sometimes a PR crisis is waiting to happen. Actors, entertainers, athletes and personalities are under such close scrutiny in the public eye that anything they do or say can be held against them and their PR pro and could possibly put their careers on the line.

Understanding how to deal with a crisis is not an easy job. PR pros should have a crisis contingency plan but that doesn’t mean they should result to being a babysitter. It means that should a client face an arrest, argument, embarrassment, lawsuit, divorce and even death, a plan is in place to help them navigate the problem and save any instant damage to their career. Crisis management is often an overlooked PR strategy. Who sits and waits for a crisis to happen? No one. But they happen. No one is above a crisis or immune to one. And when the danger lurks, it must be dealt with.

badpub1

PR pros – fight the urge to make hasty decisions in a crisis. One snap comment, untrue statement or rash decision can ruin your credibility, upset the media and make your client resent you. Once you have proven you can handle a crisis in a methodical and graceful manner, you may become the Johnnie Cockran of PR.

Companies and celebs – be honest with your PR and legal counsel. They need to know the facts of your situation. Remember that most incidents involving the police, courts or emergency medical are public record. That means they can be readily accessed for fact-finding in media reports. If your family would be embarrassed or you’d be ashamed by your words or actions, then its probably not a wise move.

The cliche, any publicity is good publicity, is false. Contrary to what we may have assumed for decades, publicity means nothing if your name is as good as mud. Good crisis management makes a distinct difference between a few minutes of fame and a long-lived run of notoriety. Bad crisis management can lead to terrible publicity, severe ramifications and a long battle of image recovery.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts to remember when communicating with the media as you approach a crisis: badpub2

DO be calm, alert and positive.

DON’T fill in silent pauses. Say what you have to say and stop! Get comfortable with silence.

DO be cooperative. Know what you will and won’t say.

DON’T ever say “No Comment.” Whenever possible explain why you can’t give them the information. For instance, “I cannot speak about that at the moment due to legal reasons.” No comment IS a comment.

DO have a one sentence message you want to communicate no matter what is asked. For example, “I am committed to my family, my career and my fans.”

DON’T start an argument with reporters. Look and sound calm and controlled. An argument makes you look hostile.

DO make your point in 20 seconds or less to avoid being taken out of context. An uncontrolled or long-winded response could contain conflicting statements and confuse the media.

DON’T say or do anything you don’t want reported. There’s no such thing as “off the record” when speaking to the media in a crisis. Any statement you make is likely to make the news. Avoid speculation, lying or talking about anything that’s not a known fact. It’s OK to say “I don’t know.”

DO stand still behind the microphone and use comfortable, meaningful gestures. Make friendly hand movements and facial expressions. It shows you’re not intimidated by the media nor have intentions of intimidating them.

DON’T keep talking as you’re walking away. Stop talking before you walk.

DO allow a PR professional or legal counsel to advise and coach you in ways that are most comfortable for you.