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A closer look at San Bernardino

May. 31, 2017
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Over the past few months, between talk of treason and the threat of nuclear war, there often seems to be little space for the “quieter” calamities, the local crises that even a year ago would have sparked national outcry. And with the specter of armageddon around every corner, it’s easy to see why.  

With that in mind, I’d like to ask you to pause and rewind to earlier this spring. 

April 10. Monday morning. San Bernardino, California.

A 53-year-old woman, Karen Smith, is teaching fifteen of her special-needs students. Her husband tells the office staff he needs to drop something off to her. 

But he doesn’t. Instead, he walks into the classroom and shoots her fatally. 

One of the three students injured dies.

The incident, however sad, would not inspire President Donald Trump to address the nation. It would not create pressure for politicians to act. It would not even start a conversation about the role of domestic abuse as a major driver of gun violence in the U.S. As HuffPost’s Michael Calderone documented, the story was already receding from the headlines by Tuesday morning. The country had moved on. - Melissa Jeltsen, The Latest San Bernadino Shooting Reveals A Far More Common Form Of Terror (via Huffington Post)

To be honest, I’m not sure why we moved on. Karen’s story lit a spark that would quickly die out, pushed aside by headlines deemed more relevant and noteworthy. Karen’s story, however, can serve as an example of the invisibility of the black woman in American media; the devaluation of disabled lives; and the news industry’s failure to document the greatest tragedy women face in our country: the brutal betrayal by their significant other. And since the media has such a profound influence on social norms, the underrepresentation of individuals and circumstances can leave us uninformed about the struggles and circumstances of those around us.  

San Bernardino School District / Via SBPD

The Black Woman 

It’s early Sunday morning in Little Italy--the area in the Near West Side of Chicago, Illinois, now commonly known as University Village. I am sitting on the couch with my brother’s fiancee Rhode and her best friend Tatiana. All three of us are black women. Eager to get their perspectives, I started a discussion about the presence of black women in America media.

“Yeah, the Black Lives Matter seems mainly focused on men. I mean, I know Sandra Bland, but that’s basically it. I didn’t even know the woman [Karen] you were talking about.”

Recently, the media has honed in on the racial injustices perpetrated by police officers against black men, with much of this discussion centering around the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the founders of the Blacks Lives Matter movement--all female--originally intended for their movement to be a voice for black women as well. Christopher Lebron, Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Philosophy at Yale University, cites the stories of Yvette Smith, Malissa Williams, and Rekia Boyd as a reminder that black women suffer from the same often-fatal prejudices that black men do--in fact, Lebron points out, “black women make up roughly 8 percent of the population in the United States but nearly 37 percent of missing women.”

But these stories rarely get amplified in mainstream media. In the Spring of 2016, Zach Summers conducted an analysis of Missing White Woman Syndrome which led to two important findings: for one, white women were more likely to be the subject in news coverage compared to other missing persons. The effects of this discovery were compounded by his second finding, which revealed that coverage of missing white women had a different intensity than that of other missing-persons cases--in other words, coverage was more likely to be repeatedly reported, driving up the total number of articles on white women.  

While Karen was neither shot by police nor a missing person, she was a woman of color--a person whose likeness is doubly neglected by the mainstream media on the basis of both her race and her gender. 

Domestic Violence

National statistics on domestic violence show that 1 in 3 women (and 1 in 4 men) have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner. Furthermore, these statistics show that 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94% of these murder-suicide victims are female. In a recent Huffington Post article, Alanna Vagianos put this into deeper perspective: “The number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 was 6,488. The number of American women who were murdered by current or ex male partners during that time was 11,766. That’s nearly double the amount of casualties lost during war.”

My brother served two terms in the Iraq War. My mother, who is extremely passionate about watching the news, was extra zealous during that time. I remember the number of casualties being updated on a day-to-day basis, with fresh details emerging every hour. Shouldn’t we be just as passionate about the war within intimate relationships? Surely an epidemic that produces upwards of 20,000 calls to domestic-violence hotlines per day deserves the same level of worry?

Ringo H.w. Chiu / AP

Children With Disabilities 

When I was younger, I remember having to ride the bus with students who were in special ed. That ride felt like the longest ride of my life. All I could remember were my feelings of discomfort: the “short yellow bus” didn’t have a very positive reputation, and I was so anxious to get off the bus in such a way that my friends wouldn’t notice I’d been on it in the first place. I didn’t understand what a disservice I was doing to my bus mates by viewing them as obstacles to my own goals, instead of as people worthy of respect. 

The United Nations makes the point that “[p]ersons with disabilities are seldom covered in the media, and when they are featured, they are often negatively stereotyped and not appropriately represented.” To this day, disabled children are often rejected by their parents at far greater rates than able-bodied and neurotypical children; in our society, disabled is often seen as shorthand for worthless. And the deaths of “worthless” children aren’t going to get the Sandy Hook treatment in the media. In fact, they’ll be lucky if they get any media attention at all. 

But when someone has an impairment, it doesn’t make them less of a person. “The media can be a vital instrument in raising awareness, countering stigma and misinformation”, continues the United Nations. Thus, the more the American media continues to acknowledge and include individuals with disabilities into our daily conversations, the more opportunities there our for their inclusion into our social structures and psychological framework. 

In recent years, there has been an outcry for equality in America. And while news stations document the progress our country has made to accept and love one another, there must be less bias on whose story gets an opportunity to be heard, who is seen as important, and what issues are seen as relevant.