Black youth resistance movements are ignored or denigrated by media outlets due to ingrained racism and the subsequent devaluation of Black lives. Through the lens of gun violence, Sara Shapiro examines disparate media representations and advocates for change.
There exists a permeating media-friendly image of what an American teenage activist looks like: a “non-threatening” white high schooler from an upper-middle class suburb who has just undergone a life-altering event that has propelled them to make a difference. White youth activism is heroic, applause-worthy and inspiring; Black youth activism is either ignored, or – at the media’s worst – portrayed as being dangerous, unnecessary, and violent. White lives are portrayed as sacred and worth mobilizing for; Black lives are erased.
We do not even have to ask ourselves why America – its media, its discourse, and its public consciousness – conveniently ignores Black youth activism. Structural, individual, and historical racism, especially ingrained in urban imaginaries of the “inner city,” plague American conceptions of what it means to be a youth activist and who it is important to advocate on behalf of.
We should, of course, not denigrate youth activism that is conducted by people who hold one or all of these prototypical identities – all youth activism is a vital thread in the American fabric of protesting and resisting that which is oppressive and violent. We should applaud all teenagers who seek to make their communities, and the nation writ large, more just.
What we should denigrate, however, is the media’s convenient ignorance of activists who fall outside that status-quo box.
Decades pre-Parkland, low-income communities of Black youth were engaging in anti-gun violence. But, media failed to cover and people failed to care about activism they viewed as meaningless when both the organizers of such movements and the victims of violence were Black. This – again – is not a knock on the brave Parkland students who continue to engage in meaningful work (under the March For Our Lives movement) and feel the effects of the senseless violence they survived. Parkland students have done a great deal to check their own privileges and ensure that their movement acknowledges prior activism, for example, meeting with Black students from Chicago organizing against gun violence, making their coalition more intersectional.
But, liberal media outlets, like Politico and the Washington Post, alike celebrated the Parkland students for their unique activist spirit. While the outlets were correct in celebrating the students for their resolve and organization following such a devastating event, to label their youth activism against gun violence as “unique” is a pernicious misnomer that closes doors for solidarity, instead of limiting youth activism to that which is white and/or wealthy.
Project Orange Tee. Newark Anti-Violence Coalition. The Crown Heights middle school walkout. These are only three of a myriad of movements that center low-income Black youth’s fight against gun violence and involve(d) wide-scale protest against the murder of Black children at the hands of guns. But, if you solely consume mainstream news, you’d likely believe that the March For Our Lives movement was the first time that students had ever spoken out against gun violence on a wide scale. Though the Parkland activists’ scale was much larger than the three examples I listed above, this scale was only allowed and facilitated through extended media coverage, which garnered immense popular and financial support.
Think about how much greater of an impact Project Orange Tee, the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, and the Crown Heights walkout could have had if they’d had the backing of every major news outlet.
But why did the media latch so strongly onto the activism following the tragedy at Parkland and ignore the efforts of Black youth activism surrounding gun violence that made Parkland’s activism possible? One answer, of course, is the vast disparity in resources available to the Parkland students versus many Black teenagers affected by gun violence. The Parkland students’ ability to launch a national campaign, of course, required a vast amount of financial resources. But, large movements like Black Lives Matter (though not solely youth-centered) do have a vast amount of resources and still face erasure and virulent attacks. Another answer is that the media simply devalues Black children’s lives at the hands of guns. To the media, these deaths are invisible, just as the people organizing on behalf of these lives are invisible.
When we allow only one type of youth activism into public discourse, we remove the possibility of teenagers who do not fit that profile engaging in meaningful resistance and also allow these prototypical high school activist movements to remain non-intersectional, in siloes. When we fail to pay homage to the community organizing efforts of Black youth, they are presented as without agency and are forgotten by history.
Is America ready to discuss youth activism by historically marginalized folks? While I remain hopeful that intersectionality is becoming a more widely accepted tool of justice, even the “media perfect” youth activists of Parkland were ripped apart and torn to shreds by conservative outlets, accused of being paid actors and of exploiting their grief for political gain. Despite these activists being only fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years of age, they were attacked with a level of viciousness that would only be felt tenfold were Black activism upgraded to the forefront of political consciousness.
Still, it remains the responsibility of news outlets that claim to be progressive and objective bearers of truth to provide equal coverage to Black youth activism. Only then will those movements be able to garner the resources and attention necessary for enacting large-scale change and only then will the Black lives that those movements honor be known and valued across America.
Valuing Black lives requires valuing the activism that works to protect those lives. When we erase such activism, we are also erasing the memories of the Black children and teenagers victim to gun violence.
Sign up for The Pavlovic Today Newsletter featuring news, scoops, exclusive interviews and expert analysis