The Casey Anthony verdict has provoked the same racial dialogue that ensues in response to many high-profile criminal cases. We discuss whether the jurors were intrinsically biased either because they live in a state that is too liberal (California in the O.J. Simpson case) or in the South (any number of civil rights cases). We ask why it is that children of color die every day, as in the case of Shaniya Davis, but do not receive anywhere near the national media coverage that white children receive when they are murdered. Some headlines have subtly suggested that the not guilty verdict was a case of justice delayed, even despite the overwhelming evidence against Anthony, because O.J. Simpson, an African-American man, escaped conviction despite overwhelming evidence 16 years ago.
We have many theories and few solutions that help either the victims or our national psyche. But modern bigotry is difficult to address not because it presents problems without solutions, but because it presents problems with causes we don’t want to address. Because we consider the First Amendment right to freedom of speech to be so sacred, we are willing to tolerate a seemingly limitless array of disparities to preserve it. Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission is a statement of our willingness to tolerate corporate spending on political campaigns even if it eclipses the speech of individuals without such money to spend. In Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court said that people can engage in anti-gay picketing—with signs that say things like “Fag troops”—at funerals of deceased gay soldiers even where mourning family members are present.
With precedents such as these, any form of content regulation seems like a losing battle. What reason would an agency such as the Federal Communications Commission have to conclude that such regulations would be upheld in court? Is addressing the racist, real world effects of a concentrated media environment a compelling governmental interest?
If individual decision-making were impervious to persuasion, there would be no advertising industry. Similarly, the sympathies engendered by the media played an enormous role in the Casey Anthony verdict. The Florida State Prosecutor Lawson Lamar himself suggested that the overwhelming media coverage led to the not guilty verdict. If it is true that “too much” media coverage can skew the jury in favor of a positive outcome for a defendant, a corollary conclusion is also true– “too little” coverage can lead to negative outcomes against defendants. The lack of national, emotionally-charged media coverage of mothers of color who harm their children has resulted in jurors having a far less sympathetic disposition with respect to those defendants. And this has led to, among other things, the racist result of higher incarceration rates for women of color.
Someday, the blatant incongruity between the way white people and people of color are portrayed in the media will matter as much as how Pink and Carey Hart chose Baby Willow’s name. Until then, we are forced to remain in a perpetual state of trying to make sense of it all.