Media Criminalized African-American Youth, Fromkin Lecturer Says

UW- Milwaukee Associate Professor of History, Joe Austin, has worn his heart on his sleeve for years. As a former engineer, Austin quit the workforce due to its environmental destruction and now informs society about the criminalization of African-American youth.

Austin presented his project “Preparing for the Great Incarceration: The Criminalization of African-American Youth 1940-1970″ at the 45th Annual Morris Fromkin Lecture on Thursday, Oct. 16 in the UWM Golda Meir Library.

UWM researchers found last year that Wisconsin has the highest rate of black incarceration in the country. Austin’s research attempted to advance that discussion by detailing how the news media and average people helped create a criminal perception of African-American youths.

Photo of Fromkin Lecturer by Brooke Downden.

Photo of Fromkin Lecture by Brooke Downden.

The audience was filled with past lecturers, students, members of the public, and many others who joined together not only to support Austin’s accomplishments, but also to show their common concern for this field of study.

“This topic is one that should be of importance to all people in the country, as well as metro Milwaukee as we work towards positive relations throughout our community,” Lynn Pearson, President of Friends of the Golda Meir Library, said.

Austin’s expertise in youth culture sparked his interest in the criminalization of African- American youth. His project started from an academic approach and finding out that there were no books on the history of African- American teenagers. This was an era in which African American teens played a huge role in American society and culture. With musical acts such as, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, African-American teens began to breakthrough in the entertainment world.

However, these young African American artists were still criticized based on their race. It’s no hidden fact that African Americans were treated unfairly throughout history. However, one particular media source during this era left a lasting impact on Austin while doing his research.

“I started noticing in newspapers that African -American kids are demonized in newspapers around the ‘60s.”

Throughout Austin’s presentation, he flashed newspaper headlines that emphasized the demoralization of these young teens. One headline in particular: “Nine Injured in Attacks By Negro Gangs,” demonstrates how African -Americans were demonized, he said.

The subhead then continued, “Nine persons were injured in five separate attacks by groups of Negro youths last night.”

This is an example of how media worked during this era. This style of referring to African- Americans as Negros was used in African American newspapers too, Austin said.

“But the constant reiteration of racial identity in most newspapers, particularly in the white newspapers was just sort of wild,” Austin said. “Now it just seems so unusual, although if you go back it’s really everywhere you go.”

Throughout Austin’s research and presentation, he focused exclusively on how whites talked about African Americans in newspapers. When we think about racism, we often times think about Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, but we forget the perceptions of the average human being, he said.

“I was looking at white newspapers and white folklore,” Austin said. “What I see in Great Incarceration is not those people (Nazis/KKK), but everyday white Americans.”

Society knew what was being said about African Americans, but no one spoke up.

“Combat folklore have more interrelations between black and whites because if you think they’re all criminals, you’ll know 10 to 12 who aren’t,” Austin said.

Not all Americans are able to comprehend this thought due to the highly segregated society we live in, according to Austin. Austin says by living in a segregated society there’s nothing to challenge your folklore.

Many Milwaukeeans may fall into this category as the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis Metropolitan Area was ranked number one on Business Insider’s “The 25 Most Segregated Cities in America” census analysis in 2013.

“We don’t have a democracy until all of us are treated justly,” Austin said.