On Friday morning, Justin Bieber was arrested in Miami on charges of drunk driving (he is underage, lest we forget), driving with an expired license, smoking marijuana, and drag racing. The police report of the incident records Bieber as asking "What the f*ck did I do? Why did you stop me?" (Monday, the charges have already been dropped). That same day, Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman held a press conference to effectively explain, if not apologize, for his "rant" after the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, in which he emoted to on-field reporter Erin Andrews, "I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree that's the result you're going to get. Don't you ever talk about me."
Though these two incidents are starkly different, the media treatment of Bieber's and Sherman's behavior is telling of the very racially coded media landscape we are still living in. When Sherman's post-game interview first aired, Twitter did not disappoint in being enormously racist toward him. But more subtle micro-aggressions come from major news outlets in the reporting of these two incidents. Sherman's interview was called a rant, whereas the reporting on Bieber was fairly sanitary. "Justin Bieber Arrested, Accused of DUI, Drag Racing." Sure, outlets made fun of Bieber, but they weren't genuinely disapproving of him because, well, they aren't afraid of him.
Though obviously impaired, Bieber's reaction when the officer pulled him over is even telling of his attitude — he did not think he did anything warranting an arrest. And today, upon release, he and Usher went on vacation to Panama. Bieber's arrogance is a sign of the cult of celebrity — he faced the "real" consequence of arrest, but was released, and he still has a TON of Beliebers.
Let me say, though, that it is possible to feel empathy and concern for Justin Bieber while still admitting that he receives special treatment from the media. Richard Sherman, an incredibly talented athlete and educated young man transgressed what was expected of him as a black athlete, and somehow that is more "offensive" than Bieber's missteps this weekend. As Dean Obeidallah noted at the Daily Beast:
To be brutally honest, the reason so many white people had an issue with Sherman’s interview was because in their view he was being an “uppity” black man. He wasn’t giving the cliché: “I want to thank God and my teammates” post-game speech that they wanted from him. Instead, he was speaking his mind, which at that moment was focused upon his on field war with San Francisco 49er receiver Michael Crabtree.
Obeidallah asks the question, though: "Justin Bieber or Richard Sherman: who's the thug?" but I don't think that's the question to be asked. Justin Bieber obviously needs help, and he is not totally undeserving of the sympathy he is receiving from his friends like Ariana Grande. But why is Richard Sherman considered threatening for simply making a statement, while Bieber, whose actions were literally thoughtless and endangering, being treated like a delicate child who needs help?
Perhaps, on the one hand, because he might be. Justin Bieber is only 19-years-old, and grew up in the spotlight, which can be more than damaging. In the same vein, though, Richard Sherman is a brilliant Standford alum who grew up in Compton. That then, is even more damning of the media's treatment of Bieber and Sherman: If we are to "understand" that Bieber is a troubled kid, why don't we also consider Sherman's upbringing and background before condemning him a thug?
The media is complicit in Bieber's attitude, and in making Richard Sherman feel like he had to make amends for his so-called arrogance. In his beautiful and eloquent press conference, Sherman noted that "thug" is just a more acceptable way to call a black man the N-word. Sherman is controversial because he makes us reconsider race relations, yet Bieber is essentially still seen as innocuous, even though his actions are literally dangerous.
If the treatment of black and white celebrities continues to be so aggressively unfair, then how we won't be able to blame Bieber when no one actually holds him responsible.