Keith Knight has a running conversation with his two young sons, and he doesn’t mince words: He tells them that images of Black people skew negatively in visual media.
“From comics to websites to movies and TV, we spend a lot of time on media literacy and racial literacy. It affects kids at a very young age, so it’s important to address this stuff early on,” says Knight, the cartoonist (“The Knight Life”) and television writer and co-creator (Hulu’s “Woke”) who for decades has used humor to spotlight controversies and absurdities through his lens as a Black creator.
Knight’s elder son is 13, and the father recalls once reading about how when users Googled “three Black teenagers,” the top search results were police booking photos, or “mug shots.”
“People started posting pics of Black teens just having fun — to help change the algorithm,” Knight says. “I was inspired by that.”
Now, the artist is taking a whimsical approach to the serious issue of how public booking photos can affect people, especially within communities of color.
In a recent cartoon, he instructed readers as to how they could help try to influence the top search results for the words “Black mug shots”: “Black people: Post & send a pic of yourself drinking out of your favorite mug. Non-black people: Post & send a pic of yourself with a black mug.” In creative circles, the effort is gaining traction.
“If you’ve ever doom-scrolled through any online news site, most of the Black folks you see will be mug shots,” Knight wrote in the “K Chronicles” cartoon, which he published last month. As he notes in the comic, he complained to a news site on which he saw many mug shots of people of color, he says, yet few other stories featuring racial minorities.
People began responding to his call out on social media. Now his website BlackMugShots.com includes images from more than 200 people who posed and posted, mug in hand. Many are cartoonists and performers, including “Woke” star Lamorne Morris.
Besides altering the algorithm, Knight, 55, says he hopes this project will help “make media outlets and police departments reconsider the use of mug shots.”
In recent years, some law enforcement jurisdictions, states and newsrooms in the United States have decided to limit or cease their release and publishing of booking photos, citing the lasting potential harm in a digital culture.
In 2020, the Marshall Project and Poynter quoted the U.S. prison programs director for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture as saying: “Publishing mug shots can disproportionately impact people of color by feeding into negative stereotypes and undermining the presumption of innocence.”
The director, Johnny Perez, added: “It reaffirms existing biases and creates biases where none exist. People of color are already more likely to be found guilty than their white counterparts.”
Knight says he has encountered a proliferation of mug shots on media sites, “despite news agencies claiming they’ll stop using them so much post-George Floyd.”
The “Black Mug Shots” project is among Knight’s numerous social-satire campaigns that have raised cultural awareness and sparked conversations about race in America. He received an NAACP History Maker Award for his police-brutality cartoons, which were included in his one-man slide-show presentations such as “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They?”
Knight’s aim now is to grow the Black Mug Shots site so “it becomes a gateway to informing people about the way we demonize people in this country.”
“I want it to inform folks about the school-to-prison pipeline,” he says. “I want to highlight efforts to end cash bail, [to] end for-profit prisons and reform the system as a whole.”
For now, one coffee mug shot at a time.