Saturday, June 21, 2014


Written by Charlotte A. Williams,
M.A. - Communication
a.k.a. Poet C. Etta Powers

Word Choice Help Demonize African Americans
Some of you may have read about the African-American teenager, 16-year-old Vincent Parker, who was arrested back in December ’13 for the vicious and gruesome murders of his parents in the suburban home they all shared as a family. According to media reports, the teen admitted to police and in court that he became enraged after his mom and dad took away his I-pod. Before he succumbed to his near-fatal injuries, Parker’s father reportedly named his son as his attacker. But this essay is not about Parker or his guilt or innocence. His story can be found by clicking on the link at the end of this essay. No, instead, it is about semiotics (code words, signs, symbols, gesturing, etc.) and framing and how media’s word choice can subliminally suggest to audiences how they should think about the stories they report on.

In his report on the murders of Parker’s parents, writer Stephen A. Crockett Jr. with, used the adverb  ”savagely” to describe Parker’s murderous attack. Crockett Jr.’s word choice, “savagely,” leaves cause for concern. Why? because of its negative connotation when used in a violent crime frame, especially one with a superimposed image of an African American male figure as a suspect. Without conscious thought, audiences may receive and interpret the code word, savagely to mean the suspect is an animal, beast, an uncivilized subhuman, and consciously or unconsciously respond by prejudging him guilty. This is important because a jury pool consists of members of media’s mass audiences, whether from t.v. (to include talk shows) and radio news (and talk shows), newspapers, movies, magazines, billboards, music videos, social media, etc., it matters. Because if you’re not living your life as a hermit, then you’re being bombarded with mass-mediated messages daily, and along with that comes susceptibility to conscious and unconscious responses to those messages.

Race is a factor because African Americans have been historically and unfairly framed in a violent light by media, mainly through unbalanced reporting peppered with semiotic language (code words, signs, symbols, etc.). Proof of the damage is the manifestation of how relatively easy it is for whites to blame an elusive African-American phantom a suspect in a crime that the accuser, himself/herself committed. A case in point is Rickey Wagoner. He is the 49-year-old white Cincinnati, Ohio, bus driver who reportedly claimed back in February that a gang (negative code word) of three African-American teenagers attacked him, stabbing him and then shooting him three times. He even hyped his story by sharing how his bible stopped two of the bullets, making his story a media sensation at the expense of the already feared and maligned African-American male teenager. After media lapped up Wagoner’s story, it was recently revealed that he had told an outright lie; he allegedly assaulted himself. Hundreds of years of framing the African-American as violent criminals is deeply rooted in the subconsciousness, thus making this type of false accusation believable without substantiating proof. Does this make those who make the false claim a racist? (
Falsely Accusing an African American
This writer does not necessarily buy into the belief that all whites who consciously tell police an African American committed a violent crime that they, themselves committed is a conscious racist. She takes the position that they are merely taking advantage of their white privilege, a result of a global racist socialization process that began hundreds of years ago, which today is not always recognized for what it is or consciously understood. Conversely, this writer does, however, believe that they do understand the racial climate that allows for them to falsely accuse an often non-descript African American (man) for their crime. Like any desperate person trying to escape prosecution, the ruse is used to circumvent going to prison. Conrad Zdzierak, a white man from Cincinnati, Ohio, proved he understands the racial climate, though not necessarily his white privilege, when he used it to his advantage back in ’10.  Without uttering, “An African-American man did it” false accusation, Zdzierak chose another way to blame an elusive African-American phantom for robberies that he, himself committed. How did he do it? He donned a “life-like” mask of an African-American man. Zdzierak must have studied news footage of video surveillance that captured African-American (men) committing various armed robberies (unbalanced reporting), or watched enough violent rap videos and blaxploitation movies, because in addition to the mask, he was also clad in the stereotyped hoodie. On top of that, Zdzierak  cocked his head just right and assumed the right stance, all suggesting that he did his homework before setting out on a robbery spree disguised as an African American. These observations are based on this writer's interpretations after viewing still frames and a video, all found online (links below). As a result of Zdzierak's criminal deceit, police falsely arrested an African-American man who they thought resembled the robbery suspect in the surveillance videos. By the way, whites wearing hoodies have been framed in a positive light, usually as academicians or health-conscious suburbanites who jog or run.
Now back to the word, savagely. Old television shows like Tarzan, helped reinforce already implanted racist concepts and stereotypes about the African American as it pertained to violence. Some grandparents and great grandparents today came up on that show. It depicted white interlopers going into the African jungles (frame) to try and “tame the natives.” Of course tame would be the code word that subliminally suggested to audiences that the African inhabitants were like wild animals with savage behavior. Scenes with Africans holding a cannibalistic ritual in the jungle reinforced the point. Through unconscious racial socialization and social cues, many of us have been programmed to automatically react and respond in different ways to code words and frames that makes sense to us. We have been taught subliminally what the code words, signs and symbols mean. For example, in the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” no one had to tell you that despite the adjective "wicked," that the bad witch was the one dressed in all black. Why? because you already understood that the color black represented bad. Another example would be the old cowboy pictures where villains were usually dark-skinned white actors or white actors who used dark makeup to darken their skin. Here again, no one had to tell you which one was the bad guy, you just knew. And the way you came to know was by viewing repeated frames with the same type of scenario and images, .i.e., menacing and/or frightening images of bad things happening to a white person by someone with dark skin, usually wearing dark clothing, often taking place in a darkened room or in the dark of night (frame).
Contrarily, in the Wizard of Oz, you knew Glenda was the good witch because she was dressed in all white with white skin and blond hair (symbols of good). She spoke softly and calmly (a subtle sign suggesting she was good) unlike the Wicked Witch of the West. And in cowboy pictures, the good cowboy was usually dressed in white and wore a white hat. How about the old Dodge cars commercial with the Dodge Boys? The commercial reinforced the underlying suggestion that white was good with the line: “You can tell they’re good guys; they all wear white hats” (

The unconscious or conscious response to the underlying message was your rooting for the good white guys – the desired response. Or, in the case of Dodge, your trusting the good white boys enough to buy a Dodge car, again, the desired response.
And what about positive frames? A positive frame can easily be painted negative by using the right choice words that subliminally signal to audiences how to respond to the message, just ask anyone who has ever been falsely accused. An example would be the use of the word, “drag” as opposed to “carry,” like what the lovely bride did when she carried her baby down the aisle bundled securely in the train of her gorgeous and well fitted wedding gown. The verb dragged conjured up to the mind negative images for some. This was evidenced by the groundswell of disdain for the mom bride. Drag became a negative code word that meant bad. The bride’s wedding was the positive frame. When dragged was injected into the frame because of the way the beautiful bride carried her baby down the aisle, the positive frame became negative just like that. If the brides precious baby had been dragged down the aisle, the baby most likely would have been attached to something that pulled her forcefully down the aisle with her body most likely bumping along the floor as the mother walked. From all appearances, that was not the case, at least not from this writer's perspective. There just weren't any visible signs of the angelic-looking baby being dragged or pulled down the aisle, at least not by this writer's definition of drag. The negative code word, dragged had some folks vilifying the bride and mother as they shouted, “Child Abuse!” 


Word choice is very important, especially when transmitted by media and presented in the right frame. Negative code words that suggest condemnation can subliminally influence an audience to revile the target. Positive word choice can turn a threatening frame into a softened frame and vice versa. Word choice can make you or break you. Back in the day, we used to say, “Them [sic] words are fightin’ words.” Just like fightin’ words, there are also accusatory words that can stick and even ultimately convict. It seems whenever the word savagely is used in a crime story that it is most often used to describe  an assault committed by an African-American suspect. By the way, writer Crockett Jr. is African American. Below is the link to the story Crockett Jr. wrote on the 16-year-old boy who massacred his parents in their suburban home.