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New Data Examines Perceptions of Black Males and Their Relationship to the Media

Over the past half-century, African Americans have made remarkable progress in toppling legal segregation and discrimination, in accessing economic and educational opportunities, and in participating in our political process, including, most notably, as president of the United States. Yet significant barriers remain in multiple domains, from high school graduation to employment and wealth, to physical health and the criminal justice system. In each of those areas, African American men and boys face challenges that differ in key respects from those of African American women and girls, or from men and boys of other racial and ethnic groups.

Among the many factors that influence the opportunities and achievements of black men and boys are public perceptions and attitudes toward them as a group, as well as their own self-perceptions. Research and experience show that expectations and biases on the part of potential employers, teachers, health care providers, police officers, and other stakeholders influence the life outcomes of millions of black males, just as their own self-esteem, identity, and sense of empowerment affect their ability to achieve under difficult circumstances.

In turn, one of the most important avenues for maintaining or changing these perceptions is the mass media, with its significant power to shape popular ideas and attitudes.

The Opportunity Agenda conducted three research studies examining perceptions of and by African-American men and boys, and their relationship to the media, to inform the communications efforts of those seeking to improve opportunity for black males in the United States. Academics and advocates have spent significant time investigating the relationships among media representations, public attitudes, and opportunity for African Americans. However, this research has not been fully integrated into the work of advocates and organizations seeking to make change, in part because the findings are diffuse and even conflicting, and in part because the findings have frequently not been translated into actionable recommendations.

To foster the incorporation of this knowledge into the work of those trying to improve black male achievement, The Opportunity Agenda commissioned three studies, available at including:

  •   A review of social and cognitive science literature, which looks at how media present certain images of black males and how this representation affects not only attitudes toward black men and boys, but their actual life chances;
  •   A review of public opinion research relating to race, which offers communicators a synthesis of key dynamics and ideas that exist in public understanding and can either derail the conversation or move it forward; and
  •   An analysis of original data about black men as consumers of media, which investigates how this group experiences and interacts with the media and is intended to help those working to make changes in the media environment.

The studies shed light on and explain patterns we thought to be true, and reveal new patterns as well. For example, one of the best-documented themes in the research is that the overall representation of African American men and boys in the media is a distortion of reality in a variety of ways. African Americans, and men in particular, are underrepresented in several roles, such as “talking head” news experts and computer users in TV commercials.

Conversely, black males are overrepresented when media touch on certain negative topics such as criminality and poverty. The positive images and attributes with which black males are associated tend to be constrained to a small, stereotypic set such as sports and musicality. Finally, important dimensions of black men’s and boys’ lives are largely ignored in the media.

Our analysis of how black men consume media shows that sports (primarily football and then basketball) and music (Urban Contemporary and Urban Adult Contemporary) are the most popular media content among African American men. Mainstream media reach African Americans in larger numbers than black-oriented media, with the exception of certain black-oriented magazines, such as Ebony and Jet. Several online sites, and especially social media networks such as Facebook and Black Planet, are very popular among black men.

Based on this research, and in consultation with an advisory committee, we offer a series of strategic recommendations as to how advocates, media makers, and other stakeholders can improve the content of their communications to garner support for greater and more equal opportunity for black men and boys—such as calling attention to effective solutions and reinforcing beliefs about shared fate and interdependence—and which media platforms, outlets, and genres to prioritize when trying to change the depictions of outreach to black males.

We believe that this rich body of research contributes to a solid foundation on which we can work together to change the public discourse, move hearts and minds, and ultimately create greater and more equal opportunity for black men and boys.

This research was supported by the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Special thanks to the Open Society Foundations, to our dedicated Advisory Committee, to consultants Topos Partnership and Marc Kerschhagel, and to the staff of The Opportunity Agenda who made this research possible.

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