Illegible[1] Black Death: Denied Media, Mourning, and Mobilization – The Feminist Wire

Illegible[1] Black Death: Denied Media, Mourning, and Mobilization


Breaking News

Los Angeles International Airport: Gunman opens fire at Airport, killing 1 and injuring 6 more

Washington Navy Yard: Gunman opens fire, killing 12 and injuring 3 more

New Jersey Mall: Man opens fire at New Jersey mall. No one injured

Sparks, Nevada: “A gentle boy” opens fire at Middle School, killing 1 teacher and wounding two classmates

Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, Columbine


Twitter News . . . Facebook Feed News[2]

Renisha McBride: 19-year Black women killed in all-white community Dearborn Heights while trying to get help following a car accident.

Cornell Square Park, Chicago: 13 wounded, including 3-year-old Deonta Howard, are stuck as “assailants fired more than a dozen rounds from an assault-style rifle” in what appears to be “a gang-related” shooting; news reports emphasize “several gang members were injured”

Detroit Barber Shop: Dressed in body armor and armed with a high powered assault weapon opened fire killing three and injuring 6 more.  “A Mass Shooting Happened Yesterday But You Didn’t Hear Anything About It

Johnathan Ferrell, Jordan Davis, Stephon Watts. Trayvon Martin. Ramarley Graham. Wendell Allen. Dante Price. Bo Morrison. Rekia Boyd. Kendrec McDade.


All gun violence (and all gun victims and assailants) is not created equally. Race, gender, zip code, and class all matter.  At least, that is the message told each and every day by the media. According to Annie-Rose Strasser:

The relative media ignorance of the shooting tracks with a common theme: Gun crimes often occur in low-income neighborhoods with largely non-white victims, but, from the news, you’d think every shooting put the white and affluent at risk of violence. There’s an obvious reason from a producer’s perspective: They want traffic, or viewers, and think they can get more if more well-off news consumers are self-concerned with the story. But it doesn’t reflect the reality of gun violence in the United States, where Black people are far more likely to be victims of gun homicides compared to their white counterparts.

The differential response to gun violence, however, is not limited to the media but is equally visible among gun control groups. Just as certain acts of gun violence – involving white shooters, involving white victims, involving middle-class spaces, involving ritualized spaces (airport, schools, movie theater, places of worship), involving suburban (safe) spaces – prompts breaking news coverage and the insatiable desire to understand “why” from the media and the nation’s political leaders, these type of events activate liberal gun control activists in ways not seen following OTHER incidences of gun violence.

Whereas, the Brady campaign has not issued statements about Renisha McBride, Johnathan Ferrell, the Mother’s Day shooting in New Orleans, shootings in Chicago, or the most recent shooting death in Detroit, it, along with many other groups, has focused on “the REAL VICTIMS of GUN Violence.” The campaign has issued statements in the aftermath of shootings at LAX, the Navy Yard, an Aurora movie theater, Newtown school, Oak Creek Temple, and Santa Monica College.  Following the shooting at a Sparks, Nevada school, the Brady Campaign  issued the following statement:

Our thoughts and prayers are with the community of Sparks, Nevada and Sparks Middle School.  The heartbreaking sight of children fleeing from gunfire in our schools is becoming an all too familiar sight. Tragically, 90 Americans are killed with bullets every day, including eight children and teens. While we don’t know the specific circumstances of this tragedy yet, we do know that solutions exist that can prevent most gun violence and we vow to continue to fight for those solutions until this is becomes the safer nation we all want and deserve.

Unlike a group like the Violence Policy Center, which focuses on concealed gun permits and thus organized around Newtown and the killing of Jordan Davis, in response to the Navy Yard shootings and the disproportionate victimization of Black women, other groups have focused disproportionately on those OTHER events. Moms Demand Action issued this statement in the aftermath of the LAX Shooting:

For the second time in six months, a deadly shooting has occurred inside an American airport. According to press reports, earlier today at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) a gunman with an assault weapon fired at least 10 rounds near security at Terminal 3, killing a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee and injuring several others.  This is the second airport shooting in just six months. In May, a gunman opened fire in a Houston airport before turning the gun on himself. And the TSA recently reported a record number of firearms being found at airport checkpoints in 2013, up 30 percent from last year. Despite these tragedies and increased gun danger at American airports, the gun lobby continues to fight to make it easier to carry loaded guns inside airports. For example, the gun lobby advocated for the new policy that makes it legal for permit-holding gun owners to bring loaded weapons into the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, one of the busiest airports in the world.

These same groups that issue press releases, that highlight the scourge of gun violence with white spaces and faces, have remained silent when the victims and the communities appear to be different. Whether looking at the Cornell Square Park Shooting, Al’s Barbershop, or the Mother’s Day Shooting in New Orleans, gun control advocates have failed to spotlight, mourn, or give voice to mass shootings involving people of color; they have failed to respond to mass shootings in spaces where it’s inevitable, where it’s supposed to happen, where the issue is seen not as guns but something else. For example, in Cypress Texas, 2 were killed and 22 were injured, following a shooting at party. Media reports distinguished it from other incidents, since it was the result of a “gang initiation.” Noting that some attending the party were gang members, media reports denied victimhood, telling the public: “look away, this is not the kind of mass shooting you should care about.” Not surprisingly, this incident has gotten little media coverage or intervention from gun control advocates.

The silence about mass shootings within inner city communities, involving Black and brown youth, demonstrates that the discourse around “mass shootings” is not determined by the type of gun or the number of victims, but faces and places, location and bodies. Race and space overdetermine who is afforded the rights of safety and security, and where violence is normalized, expected, and therefore nothing to worry about.

This same sort of logic guides the lack of response to other types of gun violence (and yes, these groups have issued statements in the aftermath of some single-victim shootings). As such, the killings of Johnathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride have not prompted national discussions about guns, gun violence, and the deadly mixture of anti-Black racism, the white racial gaze (racial stereotypes; racialized fear), and guns. Given entrenched racism, the killing of African Americans does not prompt national mourning or outrage; it doesn’t lead to demands for action, especially as it relates to gun control, for guns are necessary for protection, for safety, and for security.  As Brittney Cooper notes, in a nation where “Black life is still considered a reasonable price to pay for the protection of white property and white life,” discussions about guns, gun control, and gun violence are rare in light of Black Death.

Chauncey Vega further notes the continued absence of such a conversation that deals with racism, the law, and guns.  “Once more, although it will not, White America needs to have a moment of introspection and a ‘national conversation’ about how its laws make it legal to shoot and kill innocent people of color who are ‘guilty’ of ‘crime’ such as walking down the street or seeking help after a car accident.”  Yet, no press conferences or statements regarding Renisha McBride from the various gun control groups.

With the exception of a tweet from Moms Demand Action, which has focused on “stand your ground laws” (they and others have organized around Zimmerman as it relates to these laws) the devaluing of Renisha McBride is evident by the lack of outrage, mourning, and attention her killing is receiving from these “liberal” gun control groups.  The hyper focus on “stand your ground” here and elsewhere not only erases a myriad of issues surrounding guns and gun violence, but is often done in such a way that race and racism are equally obscured from the conversation.  To talk about gun control and gun violence requires talking about race and racism.  As Rania Khalek notes,

The problem with a law like Stand Your Ground is that it excuses and encourages deadly force against “perceived” threats. In the United States, where implicit and structural racism persists on a vast scale, is it wise to empower people who almost certainly have irrational and racist fears, to kill instead of call police who are trained (at least they’re supposed to be) to deal with potential threats?

Race also appears to play a significant role in whether a homicide is deemed justifiable. A recent study conducted by John Roman of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center found, “the odds that a white-on-Black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a Black-on-white shooting is ruled justified,” a reflection of the racial disparities that plague all aspects of the US criminal justice system.

For these groups, race and racism is peripheral at best, but more likely a superfluous issue. For these groups, Black innocence and therefore Black Death remains out-of-focus, if not unworthy of attention.  To all too many, Black innocence is illegible and therefore Black Death and humanity are invisible and impossible, thwarting media coverage, national mourning, and widespread mobilization.


The denied innocence/criminalization of Black bodies is commonplace and helps us understand the silence from gun rights activists groups. “African-Americans are not allowed such protections by the White Gaze. They are viewed as guilty until proven innocent, a criminal Other who is a priori categorized as  ‘suspicious’ and ‘dangerous,’ writes Chauncey Vega. “While formal racism and Jim and Jane Crow were shattered and defeated by the Black Freedom Struggle, this ugly cloud continues to hover over the United States, some 400 years after the first Black slaves were brought to the country.” The hundreds dead in Chicago and the killing of Trayvon Martin lead to stories that seemingly turn victims into criminals; even those not criminalized are imagined as complicit and culpable for their own death.  Whether citing past arrests, suspensions, drug use, clothing choices, or attitude, whether arguing that they should have known better than to go to strangers’ houses late at night or they should guard against prejudiced whites, the presumption of Black guilt shapes national conversations about gun violence. This group cannot be saved or helped. Such narratives are commonplace within the media, from the Right, from 2nd Amendment “birthers,” from defense legal teams, and countless others. Yet, the failure of liberals and gun-right advocates to spotlight these instances, to focus on race

As Eric Mann notes, “[d]eep in the white American psyche” rests the controlling belief and script that sees “the impossibility of Black innocence” (Mann 2013).  This has been all too clear in the last 6 months (and beyond).  From the “exoneration” of George Zimmerman and the criminalization of Trayvon Martin to the 20-year sentence of Marissa Alexander, Black innocence is both imagined and realized as a contradiction in terms.  From the efforts to blame (and ignore) gun violence on single-mothers, welfare, and criminality in Chicago to the erasure of Black Death in Detroit, Baltimore, and New Orleans, Black innocence remains an unfulfilled promise in a post-civil rights, post-racial America.  From Jonathan Ferrell to Renisha McBride, from Alex Saunders to Jonylah Watkins, lost lives are seen as not worthy of media, mourning, and mobilization from those purportedly concerned with gun violence.  As noted by Ruthie Gilmore, “Racism is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production & exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” The failure of gun-control groups to address racism, its consequences in Black Death, further contributes to “vulnerability to premature death.”





The racism deniers are out in full force.  So let me say this, it’s America, race matters. It matters given stereotypes of who is dangerous; it matters because studies have shown that the mere sight of black face elicits fear among whites (measurable in brain); it matters because Dearbon Heights is 84% white and has historically been a Sundown Town; it matters because she, like Trayvon, was drug tested following her death (which cannot be read outside the larger context of anti-Black racism. In one study, when asked to imagine a drug user, 95% of whites picture a black person). It matters because as noted by dream hampton, we are witnessing yet again the “‘criminalizing Black Corpses’.”  Race matters given days it took for an arrest and the nonexistent media coverage; it matters given the inequality in the legal application of the stand your ground law, it matters because of history of racism as it relates to guns; it matters because of history, from Emmett till to Trayvon, from #every28 hours to Johnathan Ferrell; it matters because of fear and terror; and it matters because white America can deny race matters over and over again even when faced with rightful anger, justifiable protest, and tears of pain, loss, and fear.



[1] I owe Mark Anthony Neal a debt of gratitude as the idea of illegibility and legibility is one he offers in his new book; this shapes my thinking here

[2] Many of these injustice eventually do become national stories as a result of activists, organizers, and social media