Home » Black Man Standing: The Media’s Portrayal of African-American Men

Black Man Standing: The Media’s Portrayal of African-American Men

The media has a powerful influence in the everyday thoughts and lives of Americans. Most Americans wake up in the morning and turn on the TV to see what’s going on in the world as they get ready for work; pick up a newspaper and read it with breakfast; turn on the radio and listen to it in their car on the way to work or school; or we do a combination of the three. The people in charge of the media are also in charge, to a great degree, of how we perceive our world.

We can sort through our own thoughts and make our own opinions, but we get our information from the media, and the media decides what to show us in the first place. We look to the media to tell us what is important, what we need to know. We also look to the media for our entertainment. It’s important for us to realize all the roles that media has in our lives and to what extent we are influenced by it, because the media is also responsible for our cultural stereotypes and values.

One major example that I will focus on here is the way that black males are represented. Black men are consistently being portrayed by the media to fit into narrow, stereotypical roles. They are being shown to be less complex, and two dimensional as opposed to the broader range of Caucasian roles and depictions that the media exemplifies. I think this is of great consequence to society, because it effects not only how society perceives black men, but also how black males perceive themselves, and how they think they are supposed to act and be.

Black men are shown less often in the media, especially on primetime TV, but when they are shown you can almost always fit them into one of three categories; 1. ) Comedian, 2. ) Angry/Jaded, or 3. ) Gangster/Thug. Do we as the viewers ever ask ourselves why black males seem to be getting so embarrassingly over-typecast? Many people don’t see a problem with this stereotyping because they feel that these in fact are accurate depictions.

And that leads us to the chicken and the egg question: Do people believe these stereotypes because that’s what they are shown, or are these stereotypes being shown because that’s what people believe? Either way the depiction is inaccurate, and is leading to a perpetuation of this narrow view of black men. It’s even harder to believe how long this has persisted when we take into consideration that African Americans watch more television than any other racial or ethnic group in America (Kunjufu 54). So why aren’t there more black characters on primetime TV’s big three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS)?

There are primetime programs aimed primarily at African American’s like The Jamie Foxx Show, The Wayans Brothers, and The Hughleys featured on secondary networks like the WB (Warner Brother’s Network) and UPN (United Paramount Network); however these shows premises are comedic and keep in the tradition of featuring the leading characters in clownish and slapstick black performances ( Hamer 23). There is one current show on primetime TV (NBC) aimed at African American’s called My Wife and Kids, starring Damon Wayans, but again this show’s key objective is to make the audience laugh.

Black men have received some dramatic, recurrent roles on primetime TV; ER, Chicago Hope, NYPD Blue, The Practice, and Law and Order for example; but these shows characters are often, if not always, portrayed as the “angry, disgruntled black man”, seeing themselves as separate from their white show counter-parts. As Hamer points out in her book What it Means to Be Daddy, strong black supportive characters on these TV shows “are often countered by a procession of black stock characters – junkies, woman abusers, and hoodlums” (23).

Not only is this stereotype and exclusion prevalent in primetime television, but, much more seriously, in our newspapers and television newscasts as well. Authors Steinhorn and Diggs – Brown state that “Even though most violent crimes are committed by people the same race as their victims, one 1994 study of local TV newscasts in Chicago found that the majority of perpetrators portrayed in the news were black or persons of color, while the majority of victims shown were white. ” (154).

This leads one to maybe see a causal effect of the wide-spread panic about black males being criminals that need to be feared and bewared whenever they are come into contact with. They also sited a different study that “found that the percentage of blacks shown as suspects on one Los Angeles station far exceeded the percentage of violent crimes committed by blacks in Los Angeles County” (154). When surveying local news broadcasts in New Orleans, the New Orleans Times Picayune ” found that more than 42. ercent of the total black images were crime-related and only 18. 5 percent involved political or community issues – this in a heavily black city with blacks in charge of city hall. ” (156). These studies may sound surprising at first, but not really when you look at your own local newscasts and newspaper articles. We have been bombarded with images like these from day one of our lives and so they can be hard to consciously become aware of. What impact do you think this has on the images black males have of their own identity?

It’s hard to measure the vast damage brought on by these unquestioned stereotypes. White people who are not exposed to black people on a daily basis where they work and live, or who do not have the opportunity to cultivate a friendship or even acquaintance with a black person only know of them through the images portrayed on TV, in popular culture such as movies and music, and what’s written in the news. So when coming into contact with a black person on a dark street, most white people (and even other black people such as Jesse Jackson) claim to feel fear.

Mr. Jackson has commented that “even he would be worried if he were on the street at night and was approached by a young black man” (Freeman, pr. 3). He said this during an interview with Bill O’Reily while speaking about the black male image in America. So much is reported on the crimes they commit, and so little is said about positive activities black males are involved in, that many people infer these messages to mean that black males AREN’T doing anything positive, and that crime is the only reason a black male will approach you. This has, to many, bred an immediate fear response to any encounter with a black male.

Fear based solely on the color of the person’s skin, without knowing anything else about them. What would make this fear enter into our minds if not from what the media has told us? And what the media seems to be telling us is that if a black male isn’t making you laugh, it follows that he must be angry and jaded at white society, or that he is a criminal out to hurt you. To black males, this sends the message that white people expect you to be a criminal anyway, and already have their minds made up about what kind of person you are.

This perpetuates the anger and the segregation that we impose upon ourselves because we feel that the other person has already decided not to like us or that we can’t relate to each other, so on goes the cycle of silence, acceptance, and separation. The media must stop playing into the easy stereotypes and start portraying people in more realistic ways; not just how we are predominately thought to be, but how we really are. And the media must realize that “black” is not sufficient to describe who a person is.

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