African Americans in the Media

The media consists of all types of communication used to reach society in one way or another. Whether the medium is print, film, television, internet, or advertisements, the media sends messages to mass audiences every day. These messages can be perceived either positively or negatively. They can have an impact on society at large or have a personal effect. Scholars have debated that the media lends a hand in constructing society’s views on places, situations, government, and races. Others suggest the media is providing entertainment and a progressive technology. The controversy between the affect of the media is ongoing. One of the main issues is that media has a powerful impact that has carved a place in society and amongst various races. Studies show that the African American culture can be used as an example to show the impact of media’s usage of stereotypes and cultural depiction in today’s society.

The Media and Racial Discrimination
Though there are various groups of minorities in the media, for all the various groups, the treatment seems to be the same. There is a direct contrast of the images portrayed between the majority and the minority groups when dealing with the media. (Freidman, 1995). The majority of the faces seen in the media are not people of ethnic orientation but of the White dominance. It is agreed by Media Awareness that in the media, the percentage of ethnic faces has grown over the years, but Caucasian actors still represent the majority with 80 percent.
Oscar Gandy (1998) argues that the function of mass media in society is to find commonalities in order to market and reach a large group of people in a limited span of time. This leads to the mass marketing of the majority people.

According to Wilson, “since nearly all of the people in the United States were White, many of them immigrants, this meant that Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and other people of color were treated as fringe audiences, not important enough in numbers to dictate the content that would be directed to the mass audience.”(1985). The media, therefore, focuses on reaching the main audience, leaving only a small place for minorities. It is in this small place that minorities are lumped together in a social class of injustice. (Dates, 1993)
Whether the race is Indian, Asian American, African Americans, or Latinos, the image placed in the media is less enlightening and more subjective than the White race. (Wilson, 1985). Wilson describes the place and differences between minorities in the United States society as the melting pot mentality. “Blacks, Native Americans, Asian, and Latinos were groups whose physical appearances permanently identified them as different from the European Whites… and had melted into the society of the Unites States. They were not only beyond the melting pot, but outside the mass audience,” (Wilson, 1985). Friedman also states that due to insignificant numbers compared to the White Majority, the “mass media treated groups not in the main stream by either ignoring them or stereotyping them.” (Wilson, 1985)

The Media and Stereotyping
The American Heritage Dictionary defines stereotyping as “a conventional, formulaic, and usually oversimplified conception, opinion, or belief.” Stereotyping is a natural process that has been entrenched into society. In the media, it is a mental way to simplify information to attract viewers and to relate with a mass audience. (Media Awareness). According to Media Awareness, “Stereotypes act like codes that give audiences a quick, common understanding of a person or group of people- usually relating to their class, ethnicity or race, gender, sexual orientation, social role or occupation.” Jack Nachbar writes that “a stereotype is a standardized conception or image of a specific group of people or objects. Stereotypes are ‘mental cookie cutters’–they force a simple pattern upon a complex mass and assign a limited number of characteristics to all members of a group.” Wilson suggests that the reason stereotypes are used to portray minorities is to promote the white race. He states:
Virtually every minority characterization was designed to reinforce the attitude of White superiority. Given the low socioeconomic status of working-class Whites during the heyday of the industrial age, movie producers capitalized on audience insecurities by using minority stereotypes to bolster their self-esteem and reinforce racial attitudes.

Wilson suggests that minority cultures have been depicted stereotypically in two categorizes: intellectual and moral. He charts some of the common traits applied to Minority Portrayal in Early Movies:

Preoccupied with simplistic ideas Low regard for human life
Inferior strategy in warfare/conflict situations Criminal activity
Low or nonexistent occupational status Sexual promiscuity
Poor speech patterns/ dialect Drug and alcohol abuse
Comedic foil Dishonesty
(Wilson, 1985)
Wilson (1985) discusses that stereotyping is a helpful tool when it can be used without stereotyping, but that is a hard concept to perform when dealing with a mass audience. An example of useful stereotype without prejudice would be the common situation of a villain and a hero. But in order to for the stereotype to not contain any violence, the situation would be “a White villain brought to justice by a White hero in an entirely White social environment. That message transmitted to the audience would be that good overcomes evil” (Wilson, 1985). Yet, when the line of color is crossed and the villain is stereotyped as an ethnic minority in a white environment, it is then that the message decoded by the viewer is prejudice. According to Media Awareness the problems with stereotyping are:
– they reduce a wide range of differences in people to simplistic categorizations
– they transform assumptions about particular groups of people in to realities
– they can be used to justify the position of those in power
– they perpetuate social prejudice and inequality
Jack Nachbar (1992) writes in Popular Culture that, “Stereotypes are frequently negative, and because a culture bases its actions upon beliefs and values which characterize the cultural mindset, negative stereotypes can be associated with actions of an exceedingly negative, harmful nature–ugly emotions and even worse behavior.” He also states that “despite the fact that stereotyping is a natural method of classification and despite the fact that stereotyping has some useful functions under certain circumstances, all too often stereotypes are the festering rot in the American mindset.” (Nachbar, 1992)

The Media and Cultural Depiction
In modern media every culture is depicted in a certain way based on assumed norms and stereotypes. The media embraces stereotypes in order to reach mass audience. The mass audience sees various cultures depicted in either a positive or negative light due to personal stereotypes. (Friedman, 1991) For example, Linda Holtzman discussed the cultural depictions of the individual minority races in the non- fiction material, Media Messages. She shares that American Indians have been depicted as savages and often times are assumed less than human. (2000). She writes, “Indians as well as other people of color were often portrayed in ways that emphasized the myth of white superiority. Indians were frequently depicted as less than intelligent than whites and less moral.” (Holtzman, 2000). As for Asian Americans, they are often depicted in one massive group ignoring the fact that they are from different countries, origins, and cultures. (Holtzman, 2000). Holtzman writes that the media “also has a tendency to instill the belief in the myth of Asian Americans as the model minority.”(2000). Wilson also argues this point in suggesting that the media has adopted the idea that Asian are vicious and devious, based upon their history of war and immigration to the United States. (1985). He writes that, “these attitudes have found their way into entertainment media…” (Wilson, 1985). As far as the African American race, Travis L. Dixon (2000) notes that, “the overrepresentation of Blacks as lawbreakers and the under representation of Blacks as law defenders on television may have the effect of distorting viewers’ perception of Blacks as dangerous to our society.”

Robert Entman (2000) cited a conversation between President Clinton and a US citizen to show power of the media’s depictions and how it is perceived by the audience:
Mr. Morgan: Yes, I do honestly think that there is still discrimination in this country to a point. There are a lot of prejudice people out there that still remain…. And I think it has been ironed out in our generation.

The President: Do you it’s because of personal experiences. Do you think it’s because you’ve had more direct personal experience with people from different age groups? Or do you think it’s because you grew up in a different time were climate, the legal and the political and the social climate, was different?
Mr. Morgan: I think it was because I grew up in a different time. We grew up watching television. The Cosby Show was my favorite show (Laughter.)
The President: So, therefore, if you worked at a bank and a Black person came in with a check you wouldn’t necessarily think it ought to be held because you saw Bill Cosby and he was a good role model? (Laughter.) No, this is important. No, no, this is important.

Mr. Morgan: Yes, I don’t think I would give him a hard time. But at the same time, I have my own prejudices, whereas if I’m walking downtown on a street and I see a Black man walking towards me that’s not dressed as well, I may be a little bit scared. So, I mean, at the same time I have those prejudices.
The President: Do you think that’s because of television crime shows or because of your personal experience?

Mr. Morgan: It would have nothing to do with my personal experience. Just from the media, television shows and things I have heard.

Entman concludes from this dialogue that the man has assumed these ideas based upon “what he learns from the media than personal experiences, understandably so since most Blacks and Whites in the United States continue to live their private lives apart from one another.” Tameka Richardson (2006) editor of African Americans in the media suggest that the media in representing minorities and especially African Americans stereotype and portray negative images of the culture. Wilson also writes that, “Media has offered an image of ethics as ‘problem people’ which means they are projected as people who either have problems or cause problems for society.” Media contributes and reinforces the idea that channels the attitudes of an individual person or the social structure of a group. Conclusively, the process of the medias usage of stereotypes has led to negative cultural depictions of not only African Americans but has impacted how minorities are viewed in society as a whole.


Independent Variable: Media discrimination and cultural depiction

Dependent Variable: Negative Image of African Americans

Intervening Variables: Age, Gender, Sex, Frequency/Amount of Television Consumption

The diagram shows how the media’s usage of race discrimination and depiction has a direct effect on the negative image of African Americans in society. The intervening variables are can be used to categorize research developments in showing the cause and the effect.