Communication Currents

Television Stereotypes and Affirmative Action

April 1, 2010
Critical and Cultural Studies, Mass Communication

Visual media, especially television, are powerful sources of information that help us understand ourselves and others in society. They define what are normal and acceptable behaviors. They tell us who are to be admired and who are to be ridiculed. They teach us who are of a higher status and who are of a lower status. Most importantly, they subtly inform us about why status and power differences exist in society. Media messages subtly legitimize existing status quo by providing causal explanations for why subordinating groups deserve to be in their assigned positions.

Television readily provides a steady stream of racial stereotypes, which actively creates or reinforces audiences' existing perceptions. African-Americans and Latino-Americans are often under-represented, marginalized, and demeaned in mainstream media in stereotypical ways. For example, African-Americans have been portrayed using such despicable stereotypes as the mammy (big, mean, loud mother figure),the coon (lazy, unreliable buffoon), the buck (savage, ruthless brute), and the tom(submissive, loyal slave). Similarly, Latino-Americans, have been the objects of derision in popular media using the following prominent stereotypes: the comic(unintelligent, lazy buffoons), the Latin lover (oversexed, promiscuous seducers), andthe crook (violent, law-breaking criminals).

News stories about racial/ethnic out-groups are often told using vivid anecdotes and personalized case studies. We can observe implicit racial cues in how stories relating to social class and crime are framed in ways that remove the burden of responsibility for failures of racial minorities from dominant Whites. They do so by attributing failures of racial/ethnic out-groups to individual traits such as laziness and criminality rather than societal factors such as systemic racism or the lack of equitable access to education. Blacks and Latinos are framed in the media as non-contributing minorities who are undeserving of greater economic and political power.

Television entertainment programs also contribute to cultivating negative stereotypes of people of color as aggressive, unintelligent, and boisterous. For example, Omarosa on The Apprentice was presented as belligerent and pushy. Crime dramas and cop shows over-represent people of color as hostile law-breakers. Considering that television shows are laden with vivid, emotion-inducing content that stimulate empathy and counter-empathy, it is understandable that they also evoke strong feelings toward racial minorities. In the context of portrayals of people of color, they repeatedly elicit negative emotions such as fear, anger, dislike, or hatred. Such feelings become strongly entrenched in the memory structure, making them accessible while making real-life evaluations. Even seemingly positive portrayals in fictional content as well-to-do achievers can sometimes strengthen enlightened racism by suggesting that racial discrimination is no longer a problem.

Opposition to pro-minority policies is an important dimension of modern, symbolic racism. Most Whites in contemporary America are not blatantly or overtly racist. However, findings from recent studies indicate that many Whites continue to harbor unacknowledged hostile feelings toward racial minorities. Even though they report that egalitarianism and racial equality is important to them, Whites are not very supportive of policies that would help implement democratic ideals into everyday practice.  

White participants in this study typically associate African-Americans and Latino-Americans on television mainly with two prominent themes – criminality and laziness. These notions about media portrayals were closely aligned with their real-world perceptions of African-Americans and Latino-Americans as lazy and criminal. Perceived laziness of racial minorities appears to have a greater impact on intergroup hostility as compared to perceived criminality. However, both these stereotypes work separately and in tandem to reinforce existing racist beliefs among audiences. These biased perceptions elicit negative emotions, such as anger and hatred toward racial minorities, which in turn leads to a lack of support for policies that promote minority rights.

Overall, the study suggests that television continues to be a dominant socio-cultural agent that influences racial attitudes and race-targeted policy preferences. In trying to link viewers' exposure to televised stereotypes with their policy opinions, intergroup emotions seem to play a significant role. Television portrayals of people of color appear to elicit strong feelings of hostility that then reduce support for policies that would help racial minorities. However, this chain of related thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and beliefs is activated quite automatically and subconsciously. Because cultural stereotypes are often taken for granted as common-sense, viewers might not be conscious of the ways in which they shape their policy opinions. Media literacy training and stereotype reduction interventions could encourage viewers to reflect on the ways in which media messages shape their political beliefs and opinions.

About the author (s)

Srividya Ramasubramanian

Texas A&M University

Associate Professor