Dilemmas and Deep Challenges


This part of the paper steps back from the problems regarding the media and its content considered earlier in the review and looks at some additional challenging dynamics and problems that are noted in the research and that communicators must grapple with.

Put briefly, the problem goes deeper than factors such as how many African Americans are involved in media content production, or the assumptions of content producers about their audiences. These challenges involve fundamental patterns in human cognition (e.g., the difficulty of focusing on systemic as opposed to anecdotal information) as well as dilemmas inherent in a fraught topic where it may be all too easy to offend or alienate one audience while appealing to another, or to trigger one problematic perception while combating another.

The difficulties of structural thinking

As explicit, individual racism (i.e., the attitude that blacks are “inferior”) has gradually receded in recent decades, structural racism has emerged as a key concept in the analysis of race-biased perception — the idea that there are systemic and institutional barriers that impede racial equality, even if individuals were no longer racially biased (e.g., see “Thinking Change,” Center for Social Inclusion, 2005).

Unfortunately, due to fundamental tendencies in human reasoning, there is a natural kind of “cognitive blindness” to patterns that are systemic and statistical in nature (see Aubrun et al., 2005). The result is that most attempts to draw attention to the phenomenon of structural racism meet with resistance and even backlash on the part of broad sections of the American public. The media contributes to this pattern by consistently transforming matters of structural racism into reports that emphasize individual stories and individual outcomes. (O’Neil, 2009)

Unfortunately, the literature offers no clear, evidence-based way forward for addressing this deep challenge more effectively.

Anxiety and “the other”

Many studies have shown that anxieties (e.g., about terrorism, or loss of a job) can lead to a more conservative outlook, including negative attitudes towards those perceived as “other” (e.g., Amodio, 2009; Jost et al., 2007). The result is that communications on issues even remotely connected to race can still end up triggering exclusionary negative racial attitudes, simply by evoking anxious feelings about the world — whether having to do with economic problems, war, or other threats. And in a time period that is particularly anxious for reasons that have little to do with race, it is predictable that racial attitudes and policy preferences will deteriorate.

Fundamental/universal challenges to race relations

This is a rich area of study that attempts to sort out patterns specific to a particular society from potentially more universal aspects of interracial dynamics. Both kinds of factors are certainly relevant to black male achievement in the U.S., and this review focuses on challenges more specific to this country, since these represent particular challenges that are potentially more amenable to change — e.g., through different patterns of media ownership, or training of journalists.

On the other hand, the universal type of challenge is also worth keeping in mind. For instance, there   is a consistent body of evidence showing that people have more trouble differentiating the faces of other-race individuals — and this effect seems to hold when blacks look at white faces, as well as when whites look at black faces (e.g., see Meissner & Brigham,  2001).

Causation vs. correlation

A great deal of social science literature quantifies the disparities in outcomes between African Americans and others — e.g., black children suffer disproportionately high rates of obesity. Typically, these studies carefully distinguish between causation (x causes y) and correlations (x and y tend to be related). Causes are harder to prove and establish with confidence, especially in extremely complex situations like school success or incarceration rates, where a number of factors may be at work.

Unfortunately, the resulting focus on outcomes (as opposed to causes) can make social science a problematic resource for communicators. Correlations (e.g., black male-ness and poor school scores go together) are open to different interpretations (e.g., poor test scores are evidence of bias against black males vs. black males are “inherently” less well-equipped for school). In fact, depending on the assumptions that the audience is already making, a communications emphasis on disparities of outcome can reinforce people’s prejudices rather than drawing their attention to racial injustice.

In some cases, researchers are able to point to disparities in both inputs and outcomes, and can explicitly point to causes. For example, a report about race-based health disparities in California highlights the causes rather than the effects, namely that black children receive less physical education in school and have low rates of access to green space and therefore suffer disproportionately from obesity and other problems:

Much of Los Angeles is park poor, and there are unfair park, school, and health disparities based on race, ethnicity, income, poverty, youth, and access to cars. Children of color disproportionately live in communities of concentrated poverty without enough places to play in parks and schools . . .The human health implications of the lack of physical activity are profound. These children disproportionately suffer from obesity, diabetes, and other diseases related to inactivity. (Garcia & White, 2006)

But in many cases, researchers can only speak with confidence about correlations and disparities of outcome, which may not be as compelling.

Warts-and-all vs. idealization

The first section of the review focused in part on how the media portrayal of black males is incomplete — not a full and accurate portrayal of their real nature, lives, and experience. But presenting a full and accurate warts-and-all portrait of black males is problematic because of the well-documented tendency   to blame victims for their problems (e.g., see Brown et al., 2003). Advocates face a dilemma in which any discussion of how the actions and choices of black men and boys contribute to their problems can end up reinforcing the idea that black males “have mostly themselves to blame.” On the other hand, not discussing black men’s choices or their consequences evokes charges that communicators are not realistic, for instance, or not asking enough of black men (see the earlier reference to Larry Elder). Portraying black men and black boys as passive victims of fate has additional drawbacks.

Cognitive scientists and psychologists have described a basic pattern of human thinking —  confirmation bias — which means that when people are given information, they tend to hear the parts that confirm what they already believe, and disregard the information that contradicts what they believe (e.g., Nickerson, 1998). This pattern creates problems for analysts who want to fully describe the problem of black male outcomes (e.g., relating to success gaps, family dysfunctions, or attitudes towards education), because they run the risk of “confirming” negative biases. There is little empirical research as yet to aid advocates in dealing with this dilemma.

The role of black masculinity

Feminist scholars have pioneered the study of gender as a social construction, overturning the assumption that gender roles are an essential, relatively fixed part of human nature. They have looked at how forces like media, cultural beliefs, ideology, and history all shape people’s gender expectations and their lived experience as men or women. Although this kind of analysis initially focused more on whites than blacks and more on women than men, there is a growing, rich literature that treats black masculinity as a similar object of study. (Brooks & Hebert, 2006)

Many analysts take as their starting point the way in which black maleness has interacted with the history of racism. Hypersexuality, violence, misogyny, and athleticism are all exaggerations of maleness that serve to caricature and stereotype black males and black masculinity. (Tucker, 2007; hooks, 2004)

Media imagery of blacks continues to stress gender and sexuality. As mentioned earlier, when it  comes to males, the media leans towards individuals such as athletes, rappers, pimps, absent fathers, and criminals. Even “positive” portrayals of black men often highlight variations on these types. The stereotypes play out in both black and white communities, and analysts believe they are a major source of the distortions that interfere with black male success. (Mutua, 2006) In fact these exaggerated masculine types in the media come to symbolize a (narrow) path for success in society.

Most analysts attribute the durability of these attitudes first and foremost to white male anxieties about the threat of black men having sexual access to white women. The caricature of black masculinity has long been both the thing that excuses white oppression and stimulates the fear that motivates it.

On the other hand, addressing the issue can mean coming to grips with how black males themselves may embrace these stereotypes, often as a form of resistance to the lack of power they feel they have to actually shape their lives. In other words, black males, with ample encouragement from the media, may often “confirm” the hyper-masculine stereotypes. Among scholars we find a full range of responses to this dilemma. For instance, media stereotypes of hyper-masculine black males are treated as:

  • false biases (Jones, 2009);
  • partially true, but exaggerated by race hostilities and the media (Burrell, 2010);
  • true, with the implication that black males should get their act together (see Neal, 2006);
  • true, though black males are not at fault since:
    • they unfortunately buy into stereotypes and expectations just like everyone else (Hutchinson, 1996);
    • they face limitations created by a society that expects black males to behave in stereotypical ways, so that stars and athletes that embody those stereotypes are the ones lionized in popular culture (Tucker, 2007);
    • many of these behaviors have structural causes (e.g., lack of real power for black men; criminal justice system undermines black family structures, and so on).

In terms of methods, most of the literature is not rooted in quantitative or experimental data. Feminist studies owes much to literary criticism, and most of the studies that look at the media’s role in the portrayal of black masculinity are based on interpretation and analysis of particular texts, movies, and television shows. For example, Orbe (1998) looked at MTV’s reality show, Real World; Dines (2003) analyzed the content of cartoons in men’s magazines; and MacDonald (2005) analyzed the television drama Homicide to demonstrate how the construction of black masculinity is depicted on television.

The problematic appeal of a “color-blind” society

One of the characteristics of the current period is the assertion that although racism may have been prevalent in the past, it is no longer a significant problem. In fact, asserting that white racism is the source of black people’s problems is caricatured as not only excuse-mongering, but a form of “reverse racism.” (Schram, 2003)

Of course, most serious scholars treat discrimination and race-based effects as highly significant and current. Moreover, consciousness of race is important to seeing and solving the problem.
Race consciousness [is] a necessary antidote in order to effectively oppose, resist and reveal the institutionalized, systemic, and normative character of racism . . . moving beyond a liberal individualist framework of analysis, with its stress on “neutrality,” “colourblindness,” and “integration” into an otherwise unchanged dominant society. (Warner, 2006)

But scholars have observed that the political right has systematically made use of “color-blind” framing to derail constructive discourse and policymaking to address the effects of discrimination:

In the Right’s view, affirmative action and other programs designed to address institutional racism . . . become both unnecessary . . . and unjust (since they do not discount race and consider individual merit alone). Using polemical and divisive tactics, the Right attacks affirmative action as “racial quotas,” “preferential treatment,” and “reverse discrimination.” It cynically takes the language of the Civil Rights Movement, including the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, to argue that individuals should be judged by their merit and character and not by their skin color . . . And, it warns that preferential treatment accorded to a particular ethnic or racial group will create resentment among others (read Whites). (Aziz, 2002)

One result of this framing has been that the media shy away from explicitly acknowledging bias as an underlying cause for social problems. (Williams, 1997) Advocates or media figures who do insist on bias as a primary cause are attacked for being obsessed with race and therefore part of the problem themselves. As a result, the public discourse about race has become more polarized and toxic, and   much less likely to serve as a vehicle for open discussion in media that are often risk-averse when it comes to genuine controversy.

The widely disseminated report from the New York Times, “Proficiency of Black Students Is Found to Be Far Lower Than Expected” (Nov. 9, 2010, p. A22) is a case in point. The detailed article focuses on the effort to understand and address the school achievement gap for black males, yet the idea of discrimination is never raised. Readers are left to fill in their own explanation as to why young black boys do more poorly in school than their black sisters, more poorly than Latino boys, and worse than low-income whites.

Efforts to open up the conversation on problems of race will have to address or reverse this problematic imbalance — namely that in most media contexts, mentioning, much less insisting on, the role of discrimination is treated as a controversial or even racist stance, whereas failing to mention the role of racial discrimination (even when it is clearly warranted) is considered a neutral or impartial stance. As Winant puts it, “a refusal to engage in ‘race thinking’ amounts to a defense of the racial status quo, in which systemic racial inequality and . . . discrimination . . . are omnipresent” (quoted by Warner, 2006). (Winant, 1997)

Implicit bias as a political tool

Further interfering with an open and constructive conversation about race is the way in which race has been used by politicians. Discourse about “welfare dependency” and the economic and social burdens of “handouts” have become a code for stoking and taking advantage of racial tensions in ways that help certain politicians and certain political projects (e.g., anti-tax, small government rhetoric).

When Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan swept California in the 1966 gubernatorial election, he sounded not only the familiar antitax, anti–social spending, antibureaucratic themes but at the same time baited “welfare mothers.” He brought the house down when he asserted that welfare recipients are on a ‘‘prepaid lifetime vacation plan.’’ (A careful survey experiment shows that voters hear these as code words for black welfare poor.) (Gilens, 1996)

It is clear that the public image of African Americans has suffered immensely by serving as a political football in the struggle between conservatives and progressives as they have sought to define some of the fundamental questions of the country — the distribution of wealth, the role of social policy and of government itself, the strength and direction of public institutions, and so on.

On this point, it is worth quoting at length from Sanford Schram’s 2003 work, Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform:

With the “old-fashioned” brand of racism now largely discredited, we inhabit a discursive moment defined by a mixture of corrosive racial resentments, fears of being labeled “racist,” and uncertainties about whether it is wise to speak of race at all. Too often, race now operates by stealth, embedded in ostensibly neutral language. (Williams, 1997; Ansell, 1997) Many conversations take on a “we all know what we’re talking about” feel, trading on race-coded euphemisms regarding “urban” and “inner city” problems, “cultural backgrounds,” the need for “personal responsibility,” the troubles of the “underclass,” and so on. As George Orwell noted many years ago (1954), such euphemistic language nourishes political ideas that cannot bear the cold light of direct analysis; it protects the existing social order at the expense of clear thought and open deliberation.

The limits of communication — contact theory

Finally, the social science literature suggests strongly that communications efforts, while important, must always be considered alongside other more direct, experiential strategies. In particular, it is critical  to continue finding creative ways of promoting direct contact (of a positive kind) between black males  and others in American society.

Numerous scholars have adopted or tested aspects of “contact theory” — the hypothesis that interpersonal contact is an important causal factor for reducing prejudice of all kinds. (See one of the most seminal works in the field: Gordon Allport’s study The Nature of Prejudice, 1954.) A carefully researched and highly cited 2006 review of over 500 studies found that contact theory is overwhelmingly supported by the data, and that contact typically reduces prejudice towards whole groups, even including groups not included in the study.

Not only do attitudes toward the immediate participants usually become more favorable, but so do attitudes toward the entire outgroup, outgroup members in other situations, and even outgroups not involved in the contact. (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006, p. 766)

The studies involved groups of all kinds — defined by race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and other characteristics — and found similar patterns across all types of prejudice, as measured in a variety of different ways, from survey self-reports to experimental tests of implicit attitudes.

It is true that certain factors can significantly reduce the positive effects of contact:

Institutional support for contact under conditions of competition or unequal status can often enhance animosity between groups, thereby diminishing the potential for achieving positive outcomes. (Ibid., p. 766)

But these are far and away the exceptions to the rule. Overall, researchers believe the studies indicate “that the process underlying contact’s ability to reduce prejudice involves the tendency for familiarity  to breed liking,” and also point out that the effects can last:

To date, findings from longitudinal studies typically have shown the persistence of the prejudice reduction achieved by contact. (Ibid., p. 768)

In short, advocates for better outcomes for black males almost certainly need to focus some of their efforts on promoting increased contact between black males and others. Certain types of contact are ideal — e.g., individuals of equal status working together to achieve common goals — but the literature establishes that a very wide range of types of experiences will almost certainly help reduce bias and improve outcomes.