In 2023, three years after what some in the media have mislabeled America’s racial awakening, we face yet another story of gun violence perpetrated against an innocent, unarmed Black boy. Unlike Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Jordan Edwards, Antwon Rose, and too many others, 16-year old Ralph Yarl is thankfully steadily recovering, fighting for his life, a fight he should not have to take on.
Most readers know what happened in Kansas City on the evening of April 13th, when Ralph Yarl showed up at the wrong door to pick up his little brothers. The resident of that home, Andrew Lester held his .32-caliber revolver to the glass and shot Ralph Yarl in the face. After the teen collapsed, Lester aimed at the ground, and shot him again. In the days following this violent attack, only two pieces of official communication were released: one on the Clay County prosecutor’s outgoing voicemail where many concerned citizens were leaving messages to demand justice; and one at the Kansas City televised press conference. Both pieces of communication were presumably carefully crafted and reviewed before their release. And yet both fail to call out racism, furthering a longstanding practice to subvert our nation’s ugly truth. This same practice is being carried out in schools and other public institutions across the country, causing a backslide in the fight for racial justice. We, as communication professionals, need to address it.
Let’s look at text.
Lines pulled from the Clay County Prosecutor Outgoing Voicemail:
- The office has received a substantial amount of public feedback regarding Ralph Yarl.
- We understand how frustrating this has been but we can assure the public that this system is working.
- As with any serious case submitted we will approach this case in an objective manner.
- We ask the public to trust the system.
Kansas City Police Chief Press Conference:
- We recognize the frustration this can cause in the entire criminal justice process.
- We want the community to know that we are committed to justice in this case and every case, and work every day to seek justice for all victims of all crimes.
Why would officials avoid the root problem, systemic racism? The only mention of system is from the county prosecutor’s voicemail, claiming that “this system is working.” I realize that he’s referring to the justice system as it relates to this one case, and he might be right; we don’t know the sentencing yet. But those of us on the front lines of communications must show an understanding of how our words will land in a broader cultural context. “This system is working,” is an paradoxical assertion to deliver to the public while a Black boy is suffering multiple bullet wounds for ringing the wrong doorbell.
Andrew Lester claimed to act out of fear. This mentality is not his alone. The trope of the threatening Black man, or boy, has deep roots in the way white people have portrayed Black people throughout our nation’s history, and present. And the misperception has taken hold. In fact, one study called The Essence of Innocence shows that respondents perceive Black boys as generally less innocent compared to their white peers at every age segment. Institutional knowledge of bias like this needs to inform how we address racially motivated crimes in the media, not as isolated incidents where race is ignored, but as pillars upholding a system that needs dismantling. For accurate representation, we must maintain a grasp on how white and Black experiences differ in our two Americas. Black Americans, in comparison with white, are:
- Victims of 10x more gun homicides.
- Incarcerated nearly 5 times as often.
- 3x more likely to die in childbirth.
- More than twice as likely to be denied a home mortgage.
- Underrepresented in positions of leadership across business, government, academia, etc.
All of us in communication positions across various sectors wield the potential for narrative change. As part of our jobs, when a race hate crime occurs, please, let’s name it. Let’s pick up that through line from past to present, and use it to hold ourselves to a truer standard of informing the public.
With that in mind, it’s easy to reimagine statements addressing Andrew Lester’s crime. Below are the exact phrases, and a suggested narrative shift.
Original: “We understand how frustrating this has been,” and “The system is working.”
Shift: “We understand that people shooting unarmed Black boys is a tragedy that prevails, and it’s devastating to have to report on yet another occurrence.”
Original: “We are committed to justice in this case and every case, and work every day to seek justice for all victims of all crimes.”
Shift: “We understand the bias present in our policing and judicial systems, and with those in mind we are determined to bring the innocent Ralph Yarl justice.”
If it’s public trust we want in the communications industry, we don’t get it by asking. We earn it by holding ourselves accountable for the racial inequities underlying America’s institutions. We earn it by rolling up our sleeves and committing publicly to efforts aimed at making Black residents safe picking up siblings, going for a jog, wearing a hoodie.
How do we get there? Tap into some of these digital resources to make getting informed a regular part of your workday.
- CapitalB and Anti-Racist Daily have web content, reading lists, and newsletters you can subscribe to as an individual or organization.
- Download toolkits for PR communications from NCMPR
- Ensure your personal and company social feeds are inclusive of Black voices Here’s a starter set: Inclusive marketing executive and longtime amplifier of historically marginalized voices, God-is-Rivera; author and activist Ijeoma Oluo, writer and cultural critic Roxane Gay, scholar and speaker Ibram X. Kendi, and Black queer non-binary influencer, Ericka Hart.
The last thing America needs as we grind the creaky gears of cultural progress is for those of us in communications to duck the conscientiousness our platforms enable. Failing to publicly recognize racism leaves the burden of proof to those experiencing it. That is not the path forward. The elephant in the room is only getting in our way.