Today, I wrote a message to the private ReFrame Mentorship Facebook group about the racist terrorist attack in Charleston this week. This group is where the mentees, their organizational supervisors, and their mentors, share lessons, ask questions, and support each other in honing the skills of social justice strategic communications. I am sharing and edited version here in hopes that it can be supportive of the efforts of organizers, activists, and communicators in this moment.
I am writing to you with a heavy heart after Dylann Roof massacred 9 Black people in Charleston on Wednesday. This was a terrorist act, meant to harm and instill fear in Black people across the country, and have ripple effects for people of color as well. This is a time to mourn and it is time to take care of ourselves, do the things and be around the people that give us safety, love, and empowerment.
And, knowing many of you, this will be a time of action, of pushing forward into the face of fear and violence, and seeking the deep changes in our society that not only means no more Black deaths at the hands of police and vigilantes, but also the full freedom of Black people and people of color.
There is already some important work being done by ReFrame Mentor Mervyn Marcano, and other leaders of the Movement for Black Lives, to frame this incident in the arc of the long story of racism in the US. From their statement on Charleston:
Whether its the murder of four schoolgirls at a Birmingham church in 1963, the killing of twelve year old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police officers, or the suicide of Kalief Browder after years of being unjustly imprisoned and tortured as a teenager at Rikers Island jail– our communities continue to suffer the many strains of a cancerous racism allowed to flourish in this country.
Given the existing coverage we can see that the mainstream media is adopting the frame that Dylann Roof is a racist. Some in the media, like the New York Times, is making the narrative link to the racist violence against Black Freedom struggles centered at the Emanuel AME Church.
While it is important that racism is in the frame, we can assume that many in the media will maintain that the terrorist act was one of an individual racist. This position entrenches racism as individual and interpersonal. This individual framing is compelling to journalists because it is easy, there are clear characters and conflict. The individual racist frame dovetails with the mass media framing of mass shootings in recent decades, often focusing on issues of mental health, video games, and gun control. This mass shooting frame of individuals who are troubled, played too many video games, and only committed violence because they had access to guns obscures that mass shootings are almost always perpetuated by white men and are almost always targeting women. With the acceptance of easier to grasp and explain away frames we see the fight of truth vs. meaning, we also see “solutions” that don’t actually lead to safety, and we see excuses made for the behavior of individual white men.
The individual racist frame is, for us who are working to end racism in this country, problematic because it frames these actions, similar to the actions of George Zimmerman, as individual and not connected to larger underlying oppressions. As the statement from Movement for Black Lives says, “While the arrest of this shooter must come as a small comfort to the families of those killed, we know we cannot arrest our way out of this country’s history or its present.” If we accept the “racism is interpersonal” frame through accepting the “individual racist” frame then we will be misdirected in our solutions to the problem of systemic racism.
Our work as communicators, in this time and always, is to tell the story in a compelling way for our audiences (which will be varied and require different messages) to internalize it, that racism is not just interpersonal, but is also systemic and structural. Dylann Roof’s actions are a symptom of a system and culture of racism in this country AND he is still responsible for his actions. We should be looking to the leaders in the Movement for Black Lives for guidance on framing and how we can support that frame in a way that resonates with our audiences. We should also be moving forward, relying on our own experience as communicators, as thinkers, and as actors, to create frames in the media that reshape the narrative on race in this country.
For all of us, as we move forward into and through this heart rending time, please lean on each other in ReFrame for support and guidance.
A note to #mywhitepeople ReFramers- I am a firm believer in white people shutting up and listening to and following the leadership of people of color AND exhibiting anti-racist leadership ourselves, especially with #ourwhitepeople. For some of us that means having conversations with friends and families, for others it means organizing our places of worship, for others it means organizing a protest. As communicators we have tremendous skills and access to media. I recommend we use it to challenge white people to show up against racism.