Lecturer examines ‘savage portrayals’ of men of color

“How and why do so many negative images of young black males, particularly images steeped in an outsized criminality and violence, persist in mainstream media? What are some of the consequences of this?”

These were the central questions posed by Natalie Byfield, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at St. John’s University in Queens, in an Oct. 30 lecture at Clark University titled, “Media Representations and the Lives of African-American Males.” Byfield’s presentation was part of the Higgins School of Humanities’ Fall 2013 Series on Framing Freedom.

Byfield began her lecture by revisiting the long history of marginalization toward men of color in America — through slavery, Reagan’s War on Drugs, and up to the present.

“How the media covered this story has, for me, more to do with this history than it has to do with this one story,” Byfield said. She was referring to the 1989 Central Park Jogger Case in which five black and Latino teens were arrested for the rape and beating of a woman in New York’s Central Park. They were convicted and served their sentences, but those sentences were later vacated when it was proven that another man, acting alone, had committed the crime. The story was examined in the recent Ken Burns documentary “The Central Park Five,” which was screened by the Higgins School prior to Byfield’s appearance.

By providing examples from history leading up to the Central Park incident, Byfield highlighted the significant role of context. “There really is no way to have this conversation about the contemporary piece without really knowing the history behind all those words and terms we saw used in the coverage, behind the messages you saw being delivered, and what ended up happening to those five young men.”

Byfield said such “words and terms” that indirectly connect race with notions of class and geography. She researched 250 articles where she coded for words related to class, victimhood, violence, age, gender and race — “jogger” and “Harlem” were two of the most frequently occurring words.

Another word came out of the case: “wilding.” The origin is unknown, but it became a blanket statement for the pursuit or “hunt” of white females by young men of color.

Byfield’s personal connection adds another layer of depth. At the time of the incident, she was working as a reporter for the New York Daily News. She was assigned to cover updates at the hospital, and ended up sneaking onto an elevator with the victim’s parents. She recalls working on the story over several months, turning the coverage at the hospital into her own beat.

During the question-and-answer period, Byfield she shared her views on where we can go from here.

“I think it’s a great idea to create spaces where marginalized voices can be heard,” Byfield said. She believes it is equally as important to challenge the mainstream in order to create a better society.

Byfield’s overall research focuses on the role of language in society, including the media in society, cultural studies, social theory, and the nature of race, gender, and class formations. Her forthcoming book “Savage Portrayals: Race, Media & the Central Park Jogger Story” will be published by Temple University Press.

Earlier this week, Ken Burns told the Huffington Post that newly elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is ready to reach a settlement in a civil suit filed by the five men wrongly convicted in the Central Park Jogger Case.

– Dan Deutsch ’13, M.S.P.C. ’14