How Language Can Denote Racial Bias

Charlotte Hampton, Grade 10, Staff Writer

When it comes to describing collective action, words matter. From the events following the Rodney King beating in 1991 to those inspired by the death of George Floyd in 2020, labels applied by the media portray racial bias rather than valid judgments on participation in a movement. While black demonstrations for freedom and justice have often been written off as riots, violent episodes instigated by whites, even when lacking higher moral aspirations, have been given the benefit of the doubt. 


Rodney King, a black man violently beaten by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1991, quickly became the personification of police brutality across America after the four police charged with his beating were acquitted. Protests broke out across Los Angeles –– some violent, some not. These efforts were labeled the “LA Riots” by mainstream news sources including CNN, NPR, and The New York Times.


But when white people carrying racist symbols and assault weapons flooded the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan in 2020 to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order, many of these same news sources dignified them with the term “armed protesters.” These protesters implicitly threatened to assassinate public officials by carrying military equipment. The official police response was donning bulletproof vests and carrying on. This poses the question of if the response would have been different had the group not been overwhelmingly white. 


Throughout American history, the word “riot” has often been used to discuss black demonstrations for equality, while white movements have often been labeled “rebellions” or “protests.” The word “riot” denotes pandemonium, senseless violence, and lacking a clear cause or admirable goals. A rebellion or a protest is warranted, justified, and organized, while a riot is none of the above. 

In view of the fact that the vast majority of protests in recent days have been peaceful, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters should be given equal status to those who showed up in Lansing. Instead of dignifying the recent BLM protests with a term similar to “armed protestors,” newspapers have been using words akin to “riot.”  For example, a TIME Magazine study found that the word riot was 175 times more common than the word rebellion in articles published between March 26 and June 2 about the George Floyd protests.


On the other hand, historians have reverence and respect for struggles involving whites––any white unrest signifies underlying problems that must be changed, from the Boston Tea Party to the Tea Party Movement of the 2000s. 


Liberal-leaning publications have been calling the recent BLM protests the “George Floyd Protests,” showing a change from the trend of undercutting black-led movements with the word “riot.” News organizations using the word “protest” is simply an accurate, unbiased way to describe collective action. Although the word “riot” is still being used by conservative publications, like Fox, there has certainly been an improvement. 


john a. powell (who does not capitalize his name in recognition of it being a slave name), a Professor of Law and African American Studies at University of California, said, “What’s happening across the country and across the world is a call for justice, a call for police accountability, for the recognition that black lives matter too.” powell said that using the word rioting to describe the protests “detracts from all that.” 


The protests occurring globally today, which consist of people of all different colors, are examples of efforts being made to begin a meaningful and historic conversation. Although the news media has frequently discredited black rebellions and protests, it is clear that change will come.