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Why Brian Williams Got Away With Pandering to Racial Stereotypes about Black Gangs

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Now it turns out that temporarily defrocked NBC news anchor Brian Williams may have blatantly lied about being terrorized by gangs during the Katrina debacle in 2005. Williams repeatedly  said that during his stay at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New Orleans covering the Katrina nightmare he and other guests and refugees at the hotel were assailed, assaulted, and threatened by an armed gang. Williams as with his other dubious personal news coverage claims got away with this whopper for years too. Now guests, police officers, and security personnel who were at or near the hotel flatly say that at best Williams wildly exaggerated the threat and at worst plainly lied. None said that they witnessed any gangs welding guns commandeering the hotel during the crisis.

But Williams claim was unquestioned for two reasons. One is obvious. It was Williams saying it, and after all, would the respected face of American TV journalism, lie? The other reason is less obvious, but far more insidious.  The assumption was that the gangs were young black males since the media early on latched on to the narrative that New Orleans before, during, and in the immediate aftermath of Katrina was being held siege by desperate, criminal, bands of out of control black thugs. Despite all evidence to the contrary that debunked this lie, it was looped so long and so often it became accepted fact.

It still is because it rests on the pantheon of stereotypes and negative typecasting of young black males and Williams likely lie had deadly consequences in New Orleans with the number of young black males that were assaulted and in some cases killed by police during the Katrina chaos. . Put plainly, it's the shortest of short steps to think that if innocents can be depicted as a caricature of the terrifying image that much of the public harbors about young black males, then that image seems real, even more terrifying, and the consequences have been just as lethal consequences for other black males.

The hope was that President Obama's election buried once and for all negative racial typecasting and the perennial threat racial stereotypes posed to the safety and well-being of black males. It did no such thing. Immediately after Obama's election teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty and crime and blacks remained just as frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceived those most likely to commit crimes are poor, jobless and black. The study did more than affirm that race and poverty and crime were firmly rammed together in the public mind. It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it's virtually impossible to root out. That's hardly new either.

In 2003, Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the tie between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit crime. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope-peddling, gang bangers and drive-by shooters. The Penn State study found that even when blacks didn't commit a specific crime; whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American.

Five years later university researchers wanted to see if that stereotype still held sway, even as white voters were near unanimous that race made difference in whether they would or did vote for Obama. Researchers still found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. The majority of whites still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn't commit them.

The bulging numbers of blacks in America's jails and prisons seem to reinforce the wrong-headed perception that crime and violence in America invariably comes with a young, black male face such as those in New Orleans that Williams claimed terrorized him and the city during those horrific days.

Williams has been called out on his other exaggerations and lies and he’s off the air for the time being. But so far, he hasn’t recanted or offered any real apology for his gang terrorizing claim in New Orleans. Here’s the rub. Even if he does, it won’t change much. Millions will stay think and believe that while Williams may have conned the public on black thugs about New Orleans. They are still a menace everywhere else.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. His forthcoming book is: From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History (Middle Passage Press)

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Tags: blacks, brian, katrina, nbc, stereotypes, williams


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Earl Ofari Hutchinson, national commentator and radio host, slices through the political spin to provide insight on today's news.

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