Surviving Negative Representation in the Media, the Black Man’s Dilemma.

Darah Martin

The picture of the black man has long been painted unfavorably by negative public perceptions. This depiction undoubtedly affects the lives and mentalities of African American men. They are at a higher risk of police aggression and possible brutality. In contrast successful black men are not usually portrayed positively in the media. Something is wrong with this picture.

Negative portrayals of black men are continually reinforced in advertisements, print media, the internet, movies, television, and social media. These portrayals create barriers within in the greater American society, and make social advancement rather difficult.

Adolescent black men do not regularly come across pictures of black success in the media. The most common portrayals of black achievement is through “dribbling a ball or rapping a lyric.” Men of color held in esteem by the media often personify restricted qualities. Physical success in sports and the music industry are too often emphasized.

In the media, these industries are glorified as the sole routes to wealth and power with little space left over for various African American achievements in society. These common role models, such as hip hop stars and basketball players imply limited life choices.

The media presents black achievement as if black lawyers, doctors, and scientists do not even exist. “I’m from South Carolina, people look at me all the time when I’m walking down the street, like I’m a deadbeat or might steal their purse. It’s sad to say but I’m used to it,” said Keenan Black when asked about his own experiences. Many important dynamics that affect black lives, such as a history of economic disadvantage and prevailing anti-black bias in society, don’t often make it to the presses or the screens.

Opportunity Agenda Study

In a 2011 study, Media Representations & Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys, conducted by The Opportunity Agenda, it is shown that these media distortions are multi-faceted, especially relative to real-world facts. For example, there is an overall under-representation of black men as ‘talking head’ experts, users of luxury items in print ads and as reliable and relatable characters with fully developed backgrounds in fiction shows and films.

Overwhelming evidence exists of exaggerated associations of African-American men to drug-related crime, unemployment and poverty. “The idle black male on the street corner is not the ‘true face’ of poverty in America, but is the dominant one in the world as depicted by the media”, according to the study’s executive summary. Too many stories associate black men with unimaginable problems.

These media misrepresentations create problematic attitudes and antagonism toward black men. Among both white and black people is a promoted view of black boys and men being associated with criminality and violence, a lack of empathy for black men and boys in trouble. Less attention is being paid to the bigger picture of social and economic disparity and increased public support of more rigorous approaches to social ills, such as police aggression and longer jail sentences.

Police Brutality vs Life Expectancy

These antagonistic views are directly linked to police brutality and lower life expectancies among African American men. This year (2019) Trayvon Martin would be twenty-four, but in 2012 he was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a police officer,  for wearing a black sweatshirt that made him look “suspicious” at the age of seventeen. Trayvon is one of many unarmed black men who lost their lives because of the color of their skin. This type of inhumane treatment is almost unheard of in other communities.

The impact of negative public perception falls upon black individuals themselves. Derogatory portrayals can reduce self-esteem. In worst case scenarios, black boys and men actually internalize to biases and stereotypes, and through their behavior, reinforce the misrepresentations. They become victims of their own perceptions.

Media images and words have the greatest impact on the perceptions of people with less real-world experience. People who have little interaction with a black family in their communities more easily embrace what the media tells them. If these people were presented with forward looking images of the African American population, there would be a significant change in society.  The media holds vast power to shape popular ideas, opinions and attitudes. If mass media would wield that power to influence positive social change, the lives and experiences of black men would greatly improve over time.

Categories: Multimedia, Opinion

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