On the cover of TIME Magazine’s special February edition is a faceless white man behind bars. At first glance, I assumed this was an issue about millionaires and billionaires who deserve jail time for getting over on society, but after a double take I saw that it is actually about wrongful convictions, celebrating 25 years of the Innocence Project.
The obvious problem with this cover is that it inaccurately represents whom wrongful convictions hurt (Black people!), but it does absolutely represent the role of messaging and propaganda in our current movements.
As of October 2016, Black people made up 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. Black people are only 13% of the American population, and yet again we are overrepresented in a subject related to the American criminal justice system; the executive summary of the paper, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States”, lays out some of the more striking data around murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes, in which the racial disparities are clear. We know that Black people are more likely to be targeted and convicted for crimes they did not commit, and organizations like the Innocence Project have been working to reverse it. The “Cases” tab on the Innocence Project’s website gives a strong visual representation of the data on a large scale, the majority of cases shown to be belonging to Black and Brown faces.
On one hand, it’s great to see a publication like TIME using their space on the newsstand to shed light on the problem of wrongful convictions. On the other hand, using a white person as the face of the problem does not address the topic in it’s entirety, and, in fact, obscures a central aspect. Messaging in cases like this is crucial, and there is danger behind the messaging here.
We recently saw what happens when “hot button” issues are messaged for a specific outcome. Mike Brown’s killer–and the system that protects him–sold a story that dehumanized Brown and acquitted a killer cop, even though that story and messaging wasn’t true. So what was TIME trying to accomplish by using a white person as the face of a wrongful conviction story? Could it be similarly harmful?
45’s Presidency has brought a wave of solidarity-seeking and coalition-building across struggles. Brown folks are chanting “Black Lives Matter!”, Black Lives Matter groups are shouting “Stop deportations now!”, women’s groups are making efforts at inclusive ideologies, and we all are showing up to resist 45. But in order to have true solidarity and effective co-struggling, we have to accept each other and our issues in totality. We cannot dress these struggles up so that we can get more people on board, and we shouldn’t have to. We live in a time of branding, platform building and communicating in ways that garner the biggest audiences possible. But at what cost?
Many have seen the image of a Muslim woman with an American flag hijab, its aesthetic similar to an Obama campaign poster, as these images were both created by Shepard Fairey. In response, Muslim activist Hoda Katebi explained that draping her hijab in an American flag was offensive, outlining how this image significantly erases what the hijab means to her. She argues “Muslims are tired of having to ‘prove’ they are American. But also, know that one does not need to be American to deserve respect, humanity, dignity, equality, rights, and freedom from hate and bigotry. An over-emphasis on being American as a prerequisite of deserving respect is harmful for immigrants and refugees.”
There is an understanding that things don’t make the top of the government’s to-do list unless it’s a white problem. When hard drugs of the 1980’s and 1990’s were impacting Black and Brown communities, the response was to increase policing in these neighborhoods and “lock up all the bad guys.” However, in the last 5 years we’ve seen an increase of heroin use and prescription drugs by whites and the response has been one of rehabilitation. In a documentary about the drug epidemic, a public health lawyer admits that “Stereotypes turn out to be so very important to people’s attitudes towards drug use, and the war on drugs, and drug users.”
It’s not far off to say the same about criminal justice and incarceration. Since the inception of prisons Black people have been the face of incarceration, because the system did so intentionally, and because of power dynamics in the U.S. it has stayed that way. You might say that the publication recognized this truth and using a white person in the image was their way of messaging the issue to a wider audience. While it might spur some movement on criminal justice reform, it does so while encouraging the system to ignore its treatment of Black people. In true American fashion, it only addresses aspects of the issue that are easier to swallow by mainstream American audiences, and leaves other issues to grow unabated. By erasing Black people from the imagery of wrongful conviction, it not only reads as if Black pain is not enough to inspire policy change, but also that it does not deserve or need to be challenged. Even if it was with good intentions, it isn’t solidarity.
As we all look for ways to resist 45, it’s important that we resist as our whole selves and support the entire scopes of our issues without altering them. We should be inspired to struggle together and fight for each other on the basis of humanity, not because we do or don’t see each other in someone else’s fight.