Respectability Politics and Decontextualization in Media Coverage of Martese Johnson’s Arrest – Darkling

On March 18th, 2015, at 12:45am, University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was violently arrested outside of Trinity Irish Pub by Alcohol Beverage Control Agents. Beaten into the pavement and brutally handcuffed while being pinned down, Johnson was left with a gash across his face requiring ten stitches. The blood pouring from his head wounds splattered the sidewalk.

In the days that followed, various media outlets reported that the arrest occurred because Johnson was in possession of a fake ID, but according to statements released by Johnson’s lawyer, the identification Johnson provided was his real driver’s license, and the discrepancy over which ABC agents initially approached Johnson was that he gave his mother’s current postal code instead of the one listed on the license (Kingkade). According to onlookers, the ABC officers rapidly escalated the situation through the use of unnecessary force. Video footage of the arrest shows Martese Johnson calling out in pain, repeatedly stating “I go to UVA,” and eventually shouting “F*cking racists. F*cking racists” at the officers arresting him (Heskett). Demands for an investigation posit that the violence of the individual arrest is situated within a widespread culture of antiblack racism: black boys and men are disproportionately targeted by police for minor transgressions, and Martese Johnson’s arrest falls into that pattern of racially motivated police brutality.

None of this is adequately addressed in the BBC’s March 19th article “Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest.” Although it is arguable that the absence of many significant details is due to the article’s brevity, the choice to exclude information that places the police brutality in a broader context of institutionalized racism is suspect. While the article quotes a student who believes the violence was unwarranted, and mentions that the Virginia Governor’s office has asked for an independent investigation into the use of force, the article does nothing to explicitly address the arrest as a symptom of institutionalized antiblack racism.

The BBC article quotes the white agents who arrested Johnson as saying he “was very agitated and belligerent.” This particular language is insidious: it implies violence, aggression, and defiance on Johnson’s part, but carefully avoids the specifics of the arrest. Later in the article, the charges against Martese Johnson are briefly cited to be “obstruction of justice without force, and public swearing or intoxication.” By quoting the officers earlier in the article, the BBC prioritizes their racially coded interpretation of the incident over the charges with which Johnson is faced. The charges show that Johnson did not physically resist arrest, and that there is no definitive evidence of drunkenness: the “public swearing” to which the charges refer occurred after extreme and unnecessary force was employed against Johnson. The language used by the officers to describe Johnson is subtly racially coded: it turns his justifiable anger into unwarranted aggression, and presents his use of swear words as more violent than the physical violence to which he was subjected.

The only quote from Johnson himself that the BBC chose to include was his request at a protest that “you guys…please respect everyone here [and that] we really are one community” (BBC). As with the rest of the article, the quotation does nothing to address the broader systemic injustice underlying the arrest. Video of the arrest, and subsequent interviews and statements show that Johnson recognizes his arrest as part of state-sanctioned antiblack racism. In this context, the BBC’s choice of quote from Johnson fits into a broader pattern of white people and media selectively choosing messages from black people that do not threaten current social order. Ignoring Johnson’s awareness of the racialized nature of the arrest, and his desire for justice, the BBC article focuses on messages of “respect” and “community” in a manner that decontextualizes the violence, and places responsibility on marginalized people to maintain peace by policing their emotions and methods of resistance to oppression. It creates a falsely egalitarian structure in which black student protesters are presented as having as much power to shape the outcome of protests as institutions of law enforcement—and therefore equal culpability in the event that further violence is enacted by police. These same tactics are routinely employed by white people and media to justify violence against black bodies by police elsewhere: in Ferguson, the use of teargas, rubber bullets, riot gear, and tanks by police was determined acceptable because the protesters were depicted as “looters” and “rioters.” As with white people who selectively quote Martin Luther King Jr. to tell black people how to respond to state sanctioned violence enacted against them, the BBC’s choice of quote from Johnson is meant to condemn expressions of black protest and resistance that harm institutions of white supremacy.

Something not mentioned in the BBC article, but brought up in most sympathetic media coverage, is that Johnson is the only black member of the university’s Honor Committee. This fact is brought up frequently because of respectability politics: often, violence against black people is justified in the media because of their attire, past criminal record, level of education, or other factors that make them expendable in a racist and classist society. Respectability politics tell black youth that in order to prevent themselves from being victimized by police, they must behave in a way that is not associated with stereotypical black masculinity. It is a form of victim blaming that is used to justify state violence against black bodies and lives, and devalues all black people who fail to meet the nebulous and unspecified criteria for acceptable blackness under white supremacy. Johnson, however, embodies politics of respectability: he is a double major at a prestigious university, a member of the school’s Honor Committee, involved in campus affairs; he speaks American Standard English, and dresses in clothes associated with an upper class position. In a society where education is presented as a “social, economic, and racial equalizer…Johnson’s educational success should theoretically protect him from [racist stereotypes] of violence and inherent criminality” (Bennett). Although not included in the article, video of the arrest shows Johnson repeatedly declaring that he attends UVA: by invoking his education, Johnson attempts to access a form of social currency that respectability politics dictates will negate or supersede his marginalized racial status. The failure of his educated status to protect him serves as a grim reminder of the reality of antiblack racism in the US (and globally): there is no acceptable way to be black under white supremacy.

It is possible that the BBC article is attempting to avoid promoting politics of respectability by not mentioning Martese Johnson’s academic success. It is also possible that brevity, and not a deliberate attempt to decontextualize the arrest, is behind the exclusion of many details that link it to institutionalized racism. It is more likely, however, that these omissions are the result of an inability to recognize black value, even when it appears to conform to white standards of acceptability. It is more likely that the BBC, as media dominated by white people and ideals, wishes to perceive Johnson’s arrest as an isolated, possibly deserved instance of violence, than as the symptom of a greater social ill.

Thanks for reading! It has been a pleasure posting here this semester. I hope that everyone in my group (and in our class as a whole) will continue to identify and combat systemic injustice wherever they see it.

-Darkling

Works Cited

Bennett, Amanda. “Your College Degree Won’t Protect You From Institutional Racism.” Huffington Post. 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-bennett/your-college-degree-wont-_b_6905284.html>

Clifton, Derrick. “7 Phrases Everyone Needs to Stop Using to Describe Black People.” Identities.Mic. 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.<http://mic.com/articles/99182/7-racially-coded-phrases-that-everyone-needs-to-stop-saying-about-black-people>

Heskett, Chloe. “University Student, Honor Committee Member Martese Johnson Arrested.” Cavalier Daily. 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.<http://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2015/03/university-student-honor-committee-member-martese-johnson-arrested>

Kingkade, Tyler. “Martese Johnson Did Not Have a Fake ID, Attorney Says.” Huffington Post. 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/19/martese-johnson-fake-id_n_6906044.html>

Trudy. “Whites Dehumanize Dr. Martin Luther King, Kr. into a Trope to Silence Black People.” Gradient Lair. 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 7 Apr. 2015 <http://www.gradientlair.com/post/103591208648/stop-using-mlk-as-a-silencing-tool>

“Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest.” BBC News. 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-31965856>

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3 thoughts on “Respectability Politics and Decontextualization in Media Coverage of Martese Johnson’s Arrest – Darkling

  1. Elin

    Hi Darkling,

    First off I want to commend you on yet another fascinating post! I found the point of view and perspective that you took quite interesting and thought provoking, as you dedicated part of the piece to examining the institutionalized racism which surrounded how the event was presented and reported by the media rather then focusing on the event itself. Further, your critique of how Johnson’s educational success should seemingly protect him from such stereotypical forms of criminality helped illustrate the pervasiveness and systemic nature of radicalized scripts within culture. Do you believe that mainstream news agencies should be held accountable (somehow) for helping perpetuate such stereotypes?

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  2. Moira

    Hi Darkling! Thank you for your post – I enjoyed reading it! Thank you for touching on the language that was used in the article. It is interesting that we all read different pieces but have picked up on strikingly similar themes. It is totally true that the language in many articles is biased – even one that is so called “condemning” this anti-black police brutality. Giving space for the officers to be quoted in the article saying that he was “belligerent” wasn’t just an innocent choice – this is covert inclusion of an “excuse” for their behaviour, and the article, regardless of its intent, is thus complicit in their defense. I wanted to draw parallels to similar issues in articles about Indigenous protests: There are repeated images of cars burning and trains stalled (usually the same images over and over) but no pictures of all of the peaceful protest that is going on (and obviously no mention of the environmental, social, and cultural destruction that these people are ACTUALLY PROTESTING).
    Again, thank you for your post – I am sad that this blog will be ending soon, but I hope you continue to write! Have a fantastic summer!

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  3. Rosa Queen

    Hello Darkling,
    As always, I was in awe of your eloquence and clear statement of the facts at hand and what it means to the minorities that must face these harsh truths. I especially like that you have brought up the idea of social currency, in this case higher education, seemingly like an effective way of avoiding stereotypes. For generations, White bodies have been dictating what this social currency is in terms of Black bodies, whether it is education, dress, language or economic standing, in that way initiating Black respectability politics. What we have seen both in this case and over decades is that these politics do nothing for protecting these bodies. You also mentioned how respectability wasn’t enough to stop this crime and also how crimes like these always face a victim-blaming backlash from the media. You are correct in your statement that these victims are placed in a negative light and even those protesting for the basic human rights that were taken from these victims also are painted as violent and corrupt by the media. All in all, another masterpiece of a blog.
    Thank you for your thoughts!
    -Rosa Queen

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