I recently spoke with Robert Entman, J.B. and M.C. Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University, about negative stereotypes of African Americans in the media. He is author of The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America.
Your book is groundbreaking in its examination of why African Americans continue to face negative portrayals in the media. What are a few of the key factors for this phenomenon?
The factors are multiple. Perhaps most importantly, the media are driven by the need to make profits and that means great sensitivity to audience tastes and advertiser needs. The majority of the audience and an even greater proportion of the affluent audience is white; programmers and advertisers assume this audience dislikes too much presence, or the unexpected counter-stereotype, of blacks.
I’m not entirely sure this is true, by the way. Most executives in media organizations are white and, as such, don’t understand the continuing force of racial discrimination in shaping blacks’ lives, relegating most tales of racism to the era before Martin Luther King. This includes the (overwhelmingly white) media critics in the print and electronic media who, my research suggests, remain uninterested in anything but the most overt racial stereotypes.
Why is it that the current political climate is unable to embrace a racial analysis that advances a more open and healing dialogue for all?
For much of the time since the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, politicians have used subtle racial messages to appeal to white voters’ ignorance and fears. In one sense, this can be expected; there is a dearth of “open and healing dialogue” about issues from taxes and health care to environmental protection and unemployment. Race is just a particularly effective issue for politicians who want to distract white citizens by stirring anxiety and anger toward blacks, Latino immigrants or other non-whites. That helps to discourage whites from clear thinking about ways government might help or hurt their lives.
In your book you raise the point that it’s in our political and economic interest to address the ways media and market influences perpetuate negative stereotypes. Why do you think this is so important in maintaining a robust and vibrant democracy?
One of the most important failures of media and political leaders, even racially progressive ones, is the tendency to frame race as a zero-sum game: if African Americans benefit, whites must somehow lose. This view distorts the reality of a society in which reducing racial discrimination and racism can benefit everyone in society, not least as just suggested—by helping black, white, Latino and all other voters focus on their most important needs and values.
We’ve talked also about some of the work you’ve specifically done around the impact media portrayals have on young black males and other men of color. What are some of the things your research has found?
One of the key findings of my research and that of many others is the tendency of television news to show young black males disproportionately as perpetrators of crime. Television remains the most important source of news. When whites see images of black males accused of crimes, experiments show that they become more fearful of crime and more punitive than when they see white defendants. Furthermore, crime news rarely offers contextual information about black offenders that supports the presumption of innocence or explains circumstances that might have turned the young man toward illegal behavior.
In many ways it seems the attempt to even change perceptions could be futile and a waste of time. Why do we think we could make a difference? Why should we even be concerned with trying to do something around this issue of negative perceptions? Why are you committed to this issue that seems almost insurmountable?
Despite continuing problems, it’s also true that attitudes have changed over the past 50 years. Many more whites have black friends, co-workers and relatives than in 1960, and many more blacks appear in positive roles in the news, in films and TV shows. (In 1960 hardly any blacks appeared in any media in any role.) We still have a long way to go, but progress in the past suggests progress can be made in the future. In addition, there is some reason for optimism about the younger generation of whites having fewer racial anxieties and animosities than their parents and grandparents. This can be built upon, especially if political, educational and media leaders of good will take more short-term risks to promote racial comity which, again, would be in almost everyone’s long-term interest.
At a convening next week we’ll have the opportunity to engage a range of community advocates, foundation executives, and key media influencers including Spike Lee, Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell, and a host of others. What will you convey to them based on your research?
To recognize the subtle ways that media images and other elements of culture (sports, music, literature) shape group members’ perceptions of each other and work to challenge expectations. In American culture, even seemingly neutral and innocent choices from casting to camera angles, from headlines to display ads, can convey unintended negative meanings. Naming, disrupting and challenging these nuances can actually pay off commercially. This is no surprise to those you just named, but I think social scientific research can provide more specific guidance to action that might be valuable to leaders in the culture.
Your book, The Black Image in the White Mind, is now 10 years old. How have things changed or not changed since its publication? Have you seen an "Obama Effect"?
There is little research that documents much change in the media’s racial messages. This is perhaps surprising in light of Obama’s election, but it is important for many reasons not to over-generalize from that one positive political development. One thing that has changed is the emergence of the Internet and related technologies as mass media; there is surprisingly little research on racial images online, and it could be that online games, blogs, social media, and other websites will prove more flexible and effective in challenging racial stereotypes.
Last question: if you had one dream wish what would it be?
That more whites would understand that racial discrimination remains pervasive in the U.S. and, by imposing enormous costs on black Americans, makes the entire society poorer economically and morally.
This evening the Open Society Foundations cohost a town hall discussion on the role art and culture can play in addressing the negative perceptions of black men and boys in American society. View a live webcast of the event on FORA.tv.