Stereotypes of African Americans

Stereotypes of African Americans

Racial stereotypes of African Americans have persisted in American culture since the early blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century which portrayed blacks as joyous, naive, superstitious, and ignorant. Stereotypes continue today as blacks are often portrayed as athletic, very religious, poor, musical talented and criminals.

Overview of black stereotypes

History of black stereotypes

The idea of "race" in the United States is based on physical characteristics and skin color, and has played an essential part in shaping American society even before the nation's conception.cite book | last = Thompson | first = William | authorlink = | coauthors = Joseph Hickey | year = 2005 | title = Society in Focus | publisher = Pearson | location = Boston, MA | id = 0-205-41365-X] The perception of black people has been closely tied to their social strata in the United States.Fact|date=April 2008 In early American history, the primary reason for Africans in the colonies was the slave trade.

Black stereotypes: then and now

In the 1930s, studies found a high level of consistency among adjectives used to describe black people. Furthermore, most of these adjectives were negative, and included terms such as superstitious, lazy, and ignorant. Today’s stereotypes are not much different, and include unintelligent, loud, very religious, poor, and criminal. Stereotypes can also be “positive” terms, although this does not make them less damaging to their targets. Current stereotypes of African Americans include athletic and musical/rhythmic.

Inaccurate black stereotypes

Some of the black stereotypes do not correspond with reality, For example:
*Most black people are not "poor" and most of America's poor people are not black. On TV, black people are depicted as poor nearly twice as often as their true incidence; black people actually account for 24.1%"Proctor, Bernadette D. and Joseph Dalaker, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-222, Poverty in the United States: 2002, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2003." [] ] of America’s poor, although many might assume the incidence to be in excess of 50%.cite journal |last=Gilens |first=Martin |year=1996 |title=Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media |journal=Public Opinion Quarterly |volume=60 |issue=4 |pages=515–541 |doi=10.1086/297771 ]

*Because black people tend to be stereotyped as "criminal," many people are surprised to learn that criminality among African-American youth is significantly lower when it comes to the use of tobacco, alcohol or some illicit drugs; African American youth are significantly less likely to report using these substances than either white or Hispanic young people. Although the reported incidence of weapon carrying and violent behavior was higher among black female students (11.7% and 38.6% respectively) than white female students (3.6% and 22.3%), the race-behavior correlation is broken by the behavior of black male students (23.1% and 44.4%) when compared with white male students (28.6% and 43.2%).cite journal |last=Centers for Disease Control |year=2000 |title=Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, United States, 1999 |journal=MMWR Surveillance Summaries |volume=49 |issue=SS05 |pages=1–96 |url= ]

Historical archetypes

Black face archetype of minstrel shows

Minstrel shows portrayed and lampooned black people in stereotypical and often disparaging ways, as ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, joyous, and musical.

Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to affect the countenance of an iconic, racist American archetype — that of the darky or coon. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation.

"Sambo" archetype

This stereotype gained notoriety through the 1898 children's book "The Story of Little Black Sambo", by Helen Bannerman. It told the story of a boy named Sambo, who outwitted a group of hungry tigers. The original text suggested that Sambo lived in India, but this fact may have escaped many readers, and the book has often been considered to be a slur against Africans.Fact|date=August 2008 Notably tigers were common in India (and endangered now) but never lived in Africa.

"Mammy" archetype

Characteristics of "Mammy" include dark skin, a heavyset frame and large bust, and overall matronly appearance, complete with an apron around her waist and a kerchief on her head. She is overweight and dressed in gaudy clothing, as well as genial, churchgoing, and spiritual to the point of delusion — "Lord have mercy" is a common phrase associated with this archetype. She is compliant in the face of white authority, as in the Aunt Jemima and Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind's" Mammy character, standards of this archetype.

The term "Mammy" is a variant of "mother", used most prominently by black people in the South during and soon after slavery. White people used the term, as well, to refer to black female slaves, servants and caregivers, as well as a general term for black women. When in common use by white people, the word was often used sentimentally, but many black people considered it patronizing or insulting. Today, the term "mammy", when applied to a black woman, is considered highly pejorative.

"Magic Negro" archetype

The magical negro (sometimes called the mystical negro, magic negro, or our Magical African-American Friend) is a stock character who appears in fiction of a variety of media. The word "negro", now considered archaic and offensive, is used intentionally to emphasize the belief that the archetype is a racist throwback, an update of the "Sambo" stereotype. [cite book|title=Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male |author= D. Marvin Jones |pages= p. 35 |publisher=Praeger Publishers |year=2005 |id=ISBN 0275974626] The term was popularized by Spike Lee, who dismissed the archetype of the "super-duper magical negro"cite journal | title= Too Too Divine: Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day - but at the Cost of His Soul | url= | author= Rita Kempley | date= June 7, 2003 | journal = Washington Post| accessdate = 2006-12-03 ] in 2001 while discussing films with students at Washington State Universitycite web |url= |title= Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes |author= Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu |publisher= from |date=October 25, 2004| accessdate = 2006-12-03 ] and at Yale University.cite web | url = | title = Director Spike Lee slams 'same old' black stereotypes in today's films | author = Susan Gonzalez | publisher = YALE Bulletin & Calendar | date = March 2, 2001| accessdate = 2006-12-03 ]

tereotypical portrayal in the media

Early stereotypes

Early minstrel shows lampooned the supposed stupidity of black people. Movies such as "Birth of a Nation" questioned whether or not black people were fit to run for governmental offices or vote. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun arguing for the extension of slavery in 1844 said,

Even after slavery ended the intellectual capacity of black people was still frequently questioned. Lewis Terman wrote in "The measurement of intelligence" in 1916,

Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has been often cited as racist due to the depiction of the slave Jim, among other black characters, which has led to schools banning the book. [cite web|url=|title=Expelling "Huck Finn"||accessdate=Jan 8|accessyear=2006] The word "nigger" appears numerous times, and is used to describe Jim and other black characters. While this is not surprising for the time, it is understandably offensive to modern readers, particularly African-American students, who may have been required to read the book in high school.

Film and television

According to Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki, authors of the "The Black Image in the White Mind", in television and film black characters are less likely to be the "the intellectual drivers of its problem solving." Entman and Rojeki assert that media images of black people may have profound effects on the perceptions by both black and white people about black intellectual potential.cite book
last =Entman
first =Robert M.
authorlink =
coauthors =Andrew Rojecki
title =The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America
publisher =University Of Chicago Press
date =15 December, 2001
location =Chicago
pages =
url =
doi =
isbn = 0226210766
id =

Political activist and one time presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson said in 1985 that the news media portray black people as "less intelligent than we are."cite news
last =Associated Press
first =
coauthors =
title = Jackson Assails Press On Portrayal of Blacks
work =
pages =
language =
publisher = The New York Times
date =19 September, 1985
url =
accessdate = 2007-05-28
] Film director Spike Lee explains that these images have negative impacts "In my neighborhood, we looked up to athletes, guys who got the ladies, and intelligent people," said Lee. " [Now] If you're intelligent, you're called a white guy or girl." [ [ Spike Lee discusses racial stereotypes] ]

In film, black people are also shown in a stereotypical manner that promotes notions of moral inferiority. In terms of female movie characters shown by race:cite book
author = Robert M. Entman
coauthors = Andrew Rojecki
title = The Black Image in the White Mind
url =
publisher = The University of Chicago Press
year = 2000
id = ISBN 0-226-21075-8
*Using vulgar profanity: black people 89 percent, white people 17 percent
*Being physically violent: black people 56 percent, white people 11 percent
*Being restrained: black people 55 percent, white people 6 percent


In "Darwin's Athletes", John Hoberman writes that the prominence of African-American athletes encourages a de-emphasis on academic achievement in black communities."cite book
last =Hoberman
first =John
authorlink =John Milton Hoberman
coauthors =
title =Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race
publisher =Mariner Books
date = 3 November, 1997
location =
pages =
url =who cares bout black

doi =
isbn = 0395822920
id =
] Several other authors have said that sports coverage that highlights "natural black athleticism" has the effect of suggesting white superiority in other areas, such as intelligence.Citation
last =Hall
first =Ronald E.
author-link =
last2 =
first2 =
author2-link =
title =The Ball Curve: Calculated Racism and the Stereotype of African American Men
journal =Journal of Black Studies
volume =32
issue =1
pages =104-19
date =September
year =2001
url =
doi =
id =
] Some contemporary sports commentators have questioned whether black people are intelligent enough to hold "strategic" positions or coach games such as football.cite news
last =Hill
first =Marc L.
coauthors =
title =America's Mishandling of the Donovan McNabb-Rush Limbaugh Controversy
work =
pages =
language =
publisher =PopMatters
date =22 October 2003
url =
accessdate = 2007-06-02
] In another example, a study of the portrayal of race, ethnicity and nationality in televised sporting events by journalist Derrick Jackson in 1989 showed that black people were more likely than white people to be described in demeaning intellectual terms.cite news
last =Sabo
first =Don
coauthors = Sue Curry Jansen, Danny Tate, Margaret Carlisle Duncan, Susan Leggett
title =The Portrayal of Race, Ethinicity, and Nationality in Televised International Athletic Events
work =
pages =
language =
publisher =Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles
date =November 1995
url =
accessdate = 2007-06-02

The news media: criminal stereotyping

"The Black Image in the White Mind" illustrates ways in which negative media images of African Americans are disproportionate and arguably harmful to race relations:
*A mug shot of a black defendant is four times more likely to appear in a local television news report than of a white defendant.
*The black accused is twice as likely to be shown physically restrained in a local television news report than when the accused is white.
*The name of the accused is two times more likely to be shown on screen in a local TV news report if the defendant is black, rather than white.

According to Lawrence Grossman, former president of CBS News and PBS, TV newscasts "disproportionately show African-Americans under arrest, living in slums, on welfare, and in need of help from the community."cite journal
last =Grossman
first =Lawrence K
title =From bad to worse: Black images on "White" news
journal =Columbia Journalism Review
date =Jul/Aug 2001
url =
accessdate = 10-7-2007
] African-Americans are misrepresented for several reasons. Although FBI statistics show that most violent crimes involve others of same race, there is a common misconception that crimes by black people against white people are more common.cite journal
last =Romer
first =Daniel
coauthors=Jamieson, Kathleen H; de Coteau, Nicole J.
title =The treatment of persons of color in local television news: Ethnic blame discourse or realistic group conflict?
journal =Communication Research
date =June 1998
volume =25
issue = 13
pages = 286–305
url =
doi =10.1177/009365098025003002

ee also

*African characters in comics
*Coon song
*Ethnic stereotype
*Stereotype threat
*Racial profiling
*Uncle Tom
*Uncle Remus


External links

* cite web | url =
title = "The Color of Television: A Multicultural Look at the Effects of Television"
author = Robin Eisenbach
publisher = University of Oregon Media Literacy Online Project
accessdate = 2006-12-08

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