The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What a fake ‘viral’ story tells us about how we view young African American men

On their wedding day, Amy and Ian Hicks and their wedding party take photos with rap group 7262 who were filming a video in Detroit, Mich. (Courtesy of Adam Sparkes)

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from economist Olugbenga Ajilore.

Nearly 25 years ago, rap group Public Enemy came out with their third album, “Fear of a Black Planet.” The cover had a dramatic image of a black planet, with the band’s logo eclipsing the Earth. The image played off the long-standing concept of “stereotype threat,” where individuals hold stereotypes of ethnic minorities.

Fast forward to today: a recent wedding photo that went viral had a seemingly incongruous image of a predominantly white wedding party with a bunch of young black men. The explanation for the photo went as follows: Thanks to what media reports described as an errant text message, the bride accidentally invited strangers to the party. The bride apologized for the mistake and texted the stranger that the party was private. But the unintended recipient replied by simply saying “we still coming.” When the story went viral, it spawned the hashtag #westillcoming.

As fascinating as the story sounds, it was completely made up — and it played to our racial misconceptions and discomfort. Here’s the real story: the wedding party was going around Detroit taking photos and happened upon the rap group 7262 making a video. Not only did the wedding party chat with the rappers, but the wedding party ended up take pictures with the group and appeared in their video. I doubt if this story would have gone viral.

The question is (besides who created the erroneous text message exchange) why did this go viral and what does it say about our culture? The answer may be found in our preconceptions about race, and in the stories of unarmed African American men killed by cops. We all know the story of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the protests that continue in its aftermath. But arguably a more disturbing story occurred just a few days earlier in Cleveland, where John Crawford, father of three, was shot by cops as he held a toy gun at a Wal-Mart store. In a country where 86 percent of the states have an “open carry” law, how is it possible that a black man with a toy gun is not safe in a store that allows people to carry real guns?

With all the discussion of racial progress and how raced-based policies are no longer needed, we have far too many reminders that race still matters. Whether it’s stories about how African American preschoolers get suspended at a higher rate than their white counterparts or how African Americans are more likely to be fined more for legal marijuana use. There are apps for people to avoid predominately African American neighborhoods (these apps use crowdsourcing to determine “ghettoes” or “sketchy” areas). If young African Americans are viewed as criminals, should it really surprise us that they are no better off now in 2014 than they were in 1965?

So, instead of a funny story about a wedding party crashing a video shoot, we get #westillcoming.