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Deconstructing Racist 911 Calls

Baratunde Thurston Deconstructs Headlines to Illuminate Racism

— June 24, 2020 — Keynote Trends
In his Ted Talk titled ‘How to Deconstruct Racism, One Headline at a Time,’ Baratunde Thurston details how the circumstances surrounding unnecessary 911 calls can be used to paint a much larger portrait of American racism.

White people making headlines for racist 911 calls have become a constant in today’s media. “White woman calls police on eight year old girl for selling water” and “Woman Calls Cops on Black Oregon Lawmaker Campaigning in her District” are cited as recent examples. After assessing dozens of these headlines, Thurston found nearly all of them could be broken down using the same structure: subject, action, target and activity. In almost all cases, the subject of the headline is White, their action is calling the police, the target is Black and the target’s activity is always mundane, non-threatening, and non-criminal. Thurston’s conclusion is that Black people performing everyday tasks such as walking to work, riding the bus, swimming in the pool or sitting in the park are all acts that have been seen as threatening to white people.

Thurston then mentions that while it’s important that crime and immediate threats be reported, it’s equally important for citizens to first ask themselves “Do we need armed men to show up to resolve this situation?”. Research from the Center for Policing Equity shows that most police-citizen interaction happens as a result of 911 calls, and that police officers use more force with black people than white people. Placing these two facts side by side reveal the power that White people have in allowing police brutality to occur. Thurston’s conclusions can be understood in his following statement: “White people too easily call on deadly force to secure their comfort.”

After illuminating the bridge that connects white discomfort to violence against Black people, Thurston asks the audience to change their actions, to be aware of their own bias, and most importantly, to mind their own business.
Trend Themes
1. Racist 911 Calls - Opportunity for addressing racial bias in emergency response systems.
2. Structural Analysis of Headlines - Opportunity to deconstruct and challenge racial narratives perpetuated in media reporting.
3. Police Brutality and White Privilege - Opportunity for examining power dynamics that contribute to biased use of force by police.
Industry Implications
1. Emergency Response Systems - Opportunity to evaluate and improve protocols to address racial bias in handling emergency calls.
2. Media and Journalism - Opportunity for journalists to actively deconstruct headlines and report on racial issues with a more critical lens.
3. Law Enforcement - Opportunity for police departments to address racial bias within their ranks and reevaluate use-of-force protocols.
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