On Media Reports of Flash Mobs and Black Manhood

By Thomas A. Foster, editor of New Men: Manliness in Early America

Recently, “flash mob” criminal assaults have been grabbing media attention. The reporting is shrill in its ability to incite fear and none too subtle in its ability to breathe new life into tired old racist imagery of menacing, large groups of young black men.

In my recent edited volume, New Men: Manliness in Early America, historian Kathleen Brown examines how the body was important to formulations of black masculinity in a context that denied black men property and freedom, key aspects of manliness in early America.

But the physical bodies of black men have also long presented fodder for depictions of black manhood as threatening to white society.

This past weekend, CBS reports on the mugging of a jogger in Central Park described the group of African-American young men who attacked him, as a “pack” who knocked him to the ground and went through his pockets. Combining the animalistic with the image of class warfare creates a powerful image in the report. In a “pack” mentality, the motivation is that of animals, unknowable and raw. The key here is that the offenders were described as African American, thus reinforcing a view of dangerous black manhood as old as the nation.

Such reporting is not limited to New York City and the media reports that “flash mobs” are a national problem. In Chicago, there have been numerous reports of flash mobs attacking people on their bicycles on the storied Lake Front bike path, convening on the tony stores of Michigan Avenue, assaulting individuals in upscale neighborhoods. Recent reporting from the local CBS affiliate about a string of pepper-spray muggings in a predominantly white, affluent neighborhood called on readers to be aware that the suspects are “African-American men” “between the ages of 18 and 30,” weighing between “150 to 200 pounds,” and “standing 5 feet 5 to 6 feet 3 inches tall.” Such vague details and broad ranges of ages, heights, and weights create suspects of all black men in the predominantly white neighborhood. The headline screamed “Pepper-Spray Wielding Robbers On the Loose in Lakeview.” The comments are full of racist reactions that make it clear just how such reporting is being received – at least by a portion of the public.

In Chicago, that story grabbed headlines and attention that overshadowed the single story reporting that 18 people were shot over the weekend, 6 of them killed. Perhaps because those crimes were committed in poorer neighborhoods and involved people of color that story did not gain traction.

The assaults committed by “flash mobs” are deplorable. But all of our neighborhoods need better protection. And all of our youth need more opportunities for education and employment. And in the absence of more positive representations of black men, in movies, television, and music videos, the reporting on “flash mobs” will only further the specter of menacing black masculinity.

We’ve been down this road before. As local law enforcement figures out how to deal with “flash mob” assaults, let’s call on local and national media to rise to a higher standard of reporting that doesn’t just recycle old tropes and sensationalized racist imagery.

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