Representation of African Americans in media

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The representation of African Americans in media has been a major concern in mainstream American culture, and is a component of media bias in the United States. Representation, in itself, refers to the construction in any medium of aspects of "reality" such as people, places, objects, events, cultural identities and other abstract concepts. Such representations may be in speech or writing as well as still or moving pictures.[1]

Media representation of minorities is not always seen in a positive light; the representation of African Americans in particular may be propagating somewhat controversial and misconstrued images of what African American represent. "Research on the portrayal of African Americans in prime-time television from 1955 to 1986 found that only 6 percent of the characters were African-Americans, while 89 percent of the TV population was white. Among these African-American characters, 49 percent lacked a high school diploma and 47 percent were low in economic status."[2]

Since local news media may be the primary source of learning for many adults, it plays a vital part in policy debates regarding civil rights, the public's general knowledge about minority communities, and a broader and more comprehensive worldview.[3] The debate of ownership diversity affecting content diversity also contributes to the idea that in order for African Americans to be well represented in the media, there needs to be African-American ownership in the media.

Examples of misrepresentation of African Americans[edit]

Little Black Sambo is a 1899 children's book in which the protagonist is a South Indian boy who encounters four hungry tigers, and he surrenders his colourful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella so they will not eat him. The tigers chase each other around a tree until they are reduced to a pool of melted butter; Sambo recovers his clothes, and his mother makes pancakes with the butter.[4] It was said that Little Black Sambo:

"demonstrates rigid, reductive stereotyping. But back in 1935 it was seen as harmless entertainment. If nothing else, this clip helps show the tremendous cultural shift that has occurred, as this kind of representation is no longer acceptable. Sambo was depicted as a perpetual child, not capable of living as an independent adult"[5]

"The coon caricature is one of the most insulting of all anti-Black caricatures. The name itself, an abbreviation of raccoon, is dehumanizing. As with Sambo, the coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate buffoon. The coon acted childish, but he was an adult; albeit a good-for-little adult.[6]

Amos 'n' Andy was a radio-show-turned-television-show from the 1920s through the 1950s about two lower-class African-American men who moved to Chicago, hoping to start a better life. The first sustained protest against the program found its inspiration in the December 1930 issue of Abbott's Monthly, when Bishop W.J. Walls of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church wrote an article sharply denouncing Amos 'n' Andy, singling out the lower-class characterizations and the "crude, repetitious, and moronic" dialogue. The Pittsburgh Courier was the nation's second largest African-American newspaper at the time, and publisher Robert Vann expanded Walls's criticism into a full-fledged crusade during a six-month period in 1931.[7]

Al Jolson, a Lithuanian-born vaudeville comedian and blackface "Mammy" singer, lived "The American Dream."[8] In a Caucasian comedy, Jolson played a "fumbling idiot" stereotypical African-American. Although he did bring African-American culture to the spotlight, another blackface performer at the time, Bert Williams, found the performance both vulgar and repressive.[9]

Reasons for misrepresentation[edit]

Straight Outta Compton (2015) film poster.

Working in the media[edit]

Historically, the participation in media production by minorities in the US has been low. Despite recent gains, especially in television, significant racial disparities remain. In 1971, three years after the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules to foster more diverse programming, only nine percent of full-time employees in radio and television were visible minorities.[10] In 1978, American Society of News Editors set a goal to have their sector mirror the diversity of the American population in general.[11]

As the years progressed, the percentage of minorities in the workplace began to grow; in 1997, visible minorities made up 20 percent of the broadcasting work force.[12] Yet the trend towards inclusiveness, while generally growing, has been uneven. For example, a 2007 report showed that blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans made up only 13.65% of American newsrooms.[11] The numbers dwindle still further at the upper levels of media management: during the 2013-2014 season only 5.5% of executive-level television producers were people of color.[13]


Ownership in the media helps control what media is being broadcast, which also helps define who and how people are being portrayed. There is a significant under representation of African Americans when it comes to the ownership of media. A report by the Free Press entitled "Off The Dial" reports of all commercial broadcast radio stations, African Americans own only 3.4%.[14] Interestingly, in populations with large African-American markets, the number of black-owned stations are not correlated with the large market. Difficulty with capital access along with other barriers to entry may be the cause.[15] African-American owners may be purchasing broadcast stations in the only place they can – small midwestern markets, due to racism in small southern communities where the black population exists in the majority.[clarification needed][citation needed] Therefore, a valuable media perspective is lost in these communities.


Communication and media research suggest that the mass media is an important source of information about African Americans and their image. This public image influences public perception, and is capable of reinforcing opinions about African Americans.[16]

Typically, these opinions are unfavorable and highlight negative stereotypes associated with African Americans. Oftentimes the portrayals' very medium, such as television, is the origin of such stereotypes. Television has been cited for broadcasting material that displays an overrepresentation of African Americans as lawbreakers. A study of TV crime newscasts indicated that newscast content displayed far more counts of African-Americans' crimes than that of any other racial classification.[17]

The representation of African Americans in media has remained the same for a while, almost since the representation of African Americans in television ads exceeded in 1991. It has been shown that even positive stereotypes of African Americans in media can have an effect of prejudice on consumers. The roles of African Americans in media has evolved over time. On typical cable channels the amount of ads shown with African Americans has become neutral, but on channels such as B.E.T.[18][better source needed] where the viewership is mostly that of African Americans, all of the ads consist of healthy, stable, independent and enthusiastic African Americans who are goal oriented. African Americans now have bigger roles in media such as that of reporters, business owners and artists. African America women have made an uprising in mainstream media as confident and strong individuals. Several organizations have been based on the empowerment of African American women in media.[19] The representation of African American women in media has also made an increase since beauty expectations have changed. Cultural appropriation[20][better source needed] has somewhat changed the beauty standards of media. Fashion styles have taken on the cultural dynamics of many countries.

Minority Ownership Task Force[edit]

The lack of representation has spawned a number of U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiatives to increase diversity. In 1969 the Supreme Court ruled that the implicated FCC regulations that were designed to increase viewpoint diversity were not in conflict with the First Amendment, and the people "as a whole" retain their interest in free speech and the right to have "diverse programming" via the constitution.[21] In the 1960s the release of a report by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) reported that the "media" did not effectively communicate to the majority of their decidedly white audience the sense of "degradation, misery, and hopelessness of living in the ghetto."[22]

The commission also continued to report that unless the media became more sensitive to the portrayal of African Americans specifically, the degrading stereotypical content would continue to be displayed. In response to this commission, the FCC initiated a race-neutral regulatory policy to increase the likelihood that African Americans would be employed with a broadcaster.[23] This included changing hiring practices of broadcasters to eliminate racial discrimination from the employment process. However, despite these rules, the FCC found that levels of representation did not change significantly.[24]

To continue its effort to provide access to the "minority voice", the FCC established the Minority Ownership Task Force (MOTF). This group would focus on researching ways to include minorities in the broadcasting industry. The FCC notes that having a sufficient representation of the minority would be serving the needs of not only the interests of the minority community, but would "enrich and educate" the majority.

Metro Broadcasting v. FCC[edit]

The case of Metro Broadcasting v. FCC in 1990 challenged the constitutionality of two minority preference policies of the Federal Communications Commission. Under the first policy challenged by Metro Broadcasting, Inc., minority applicants for broadcast licenses were given preference if all other relevant factors were roughly equal. The second policy, known as the "distress sale," was challenged by Shurberg Broadcasting of Hartford, Inc. This policy allowed broadcasters in danger of losing their licenses to sell their stations to minority buyers before the FCC formally ruled on the viability of the troubled stations.[25]

The FCC's minority preference policies were constitutional because they provided appropriate remedies for discrimination victims and were aimed at the advancement of legitimate congressional objectives for program diversity. The FCC's minority preference policies were closely related to, and substantially advanced, Congress's legitimate interest in affording the public a diverse array of programming options. The availability of program diversity serves the entire viewing and listening public, not just minorities, and is therefore consistent with First Amendment values.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chandler, Daniel. "Media Representation". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  2. ^ Lichter, Robert (1987). "Prime-time Prejudice: TV's Images of Blacks and Hispanics". Public Opinion 10. pp. 13–16. 
  3. ^ Parenti, Michael (1992). Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment. New York: St. Martin's Press. 
  4. ^ "The Story of Little Black Sambo".
  5. ^ "Mediaknowall". Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  6. ^ Crow, Jim. "The Coon Caricature". Ferris State University.  Viewed 3 May 2011.
  7. ^ Barlow, William, ed. (1998). Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio. Temple University Press. p. 334. ISBN 1-56639-667-0. Retrieved 28 September 2010. 
  8. ^ "Stars Over Broadway". PBS. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  9. ^ "Visions of Jazz". Retrieved 2017-02-06. 
  10. ^ Wall Street Journal. 1998.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ a b Washington, Laura (February 21, 2008). "Missing: Minorities in Media". InTheseTimes. Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  12. ^ "Statistics: Minority Representation". Media Awareness Network. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  13. ^ Writers' Guilde of America West (March 3, 2015). "The State of Diversity in Writing for Television: WGAW Releases Latest Findings in 2015 TV Staffing Brief, Announces TV Writer Access Project Honorees". Writers Guild of American, West. Retrieved December 16, 2015. 
  14. ^ "Off The Dial". StopBigMedia. Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  15. ^ "Out of The Picture" (PDF). FreePress. Retrieved 20 April 2011. 
  16. ^ PUNYANUNT-CARTER, NARISSRA M. "The Perceived Realism of African-American Portrayals on Television" (PDF). Taylor & Francis Group. Retrieved 20 April 2011. 
  17. ^ Sparks, Glenn (2006). Media Effects Research A Basic Overview. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. pp. 208–209. ISBN 978-0-495-56785-1. 
  18. ^ BET
  19. ^
  20. ^ Cultural appropriation
  21. ^ Red Lion Broad. Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 357 (1969)
  22. ^ Worthy, Diversity and Media Stereotyping p511 quoting Kerner Commission Report of the NAC on Civil Disorders (1968).
  23. ^ Petition for Rule making to Require Broadcast Licensees to Show Nondiscrimination in Their Employment Practices, 13 F.CC.2d 766,774 (1968).
  24. ^ Statement of Policy on Minority Ownership of Broadcasting Facilities, 68 FCC2d 979 (1978)
  25. ^ a b "Metro Broadcasting Inc vs FCC". Oyez. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 

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