The studies reviewed for this report paint a picture of a world in which black male lives and experience are distorted in public communications, in ways that lead to distorted understandings and attitudes towards them, and ultimately to serious obstacles to success and happiness in the real world. These patterns are critical for communicators to understand so that they know what they are up against.
Overall, the studies do not offer a great deal of specific guidance concerning exactly how to go about changing these patterns. They focus more on problems than solutions, and are more descriptive than prescriptive. It is clear that much more scholarship is needed on the ways in which communication can demonstrably help improve the situation for black males.
Nevertheless, taken along with the authors’ own research experience on a wide range of social issues, the studies considered here do suggest a number of ideas that communicators should keep in mind about how to proceed.
The most obvious is that communicators need to continue to work to create a fuller and more accurate portrayal of black males in the media — through education and external pressure targeted at media producers — as well as by working to embed more African Americans in all links in the media production chain, and by producing their own media reflecting best practices.
In principle, the latter effort is likely to help with all the factors that lead to distorted portrayals, as African-American media owners, producers, writers, and so forth are less likely to fall into patterns of neglect and distortion. But we caution that simply having more African Americans involved in content production is not likely to be a silver bullet solution, for reasons discussed in the section on deep challenges and dilemmas. For instance, while a black news producer might be better prepared to address neglect of certain topics, he or she may have no clear idea about the best narratives or language for making systemic forces more visible, or about how to avoid various “blame the victim” dynamics.
Beyond working towards more representative and “relatable” portrayals of black males, communicators must face challenges regarding what to say about the topic, in order to take the best advantage of communications opportunities ranging from web pages, to speeches, interviews, and community conversations.
Some evidence, such as Iyengar’s studies of the impact of thematic news stories, suggests that awareness of systematic patterns of bias against black males can have good results. For another example, see Losen’s (2009) discussion of how the publication of significant high school graduation rate disparities between black males and others helped push national education policy in a constructive direction:
While internationally the denial of education to women is of primary concern, in the USA, black males are often the sub-group experiencing the greatest harm. …
[But a report on high school graduation rate disparities] attracted national attention … As public awareness grew … many other researchers began studying and reporting similar findings. Several politicians, including Obama, added improving graduation rates to their election campaign’s educational platform. Before election year in 2008, the Department of Education issued new regulations … [that] added accountability for schools and districts if minority or ethnic groups, students with disabilities, English learners or socio-economically disadvantaged youth failed to make adequate improvements in their rate of graduation. (Losen, 2009, p. 67)
But it is clear that, beyond simply reporting on the facts, communicators must work to find more effective ways of conveying some very difficult points — e.g., while structural racism is a familiar idea to insiders, there are reasons to believe that conveying a clear picture of it to broader audiences remains an important challenge. For a range of cognitive and cultural reasons, the focus easily remains on individual choices. Conveying the idea of “invisible” systemic forces that stack the odds against black males is a challenge that cannot be overestimated.
Yet finding ways to offer audiences new mental pictures of the causality related to black male achievement is critically important, not just as a way of reassigning “blame,” but also as a way of transcending some of the most challenging dilemmas communicators face. For instance, a new causal picture can help communicators get past the troublesome question of whether to avoid discussion of black men’s choices, thereby inviting charges of idealizing them or setting the bar too low, or to invite charges of blaming the victim. A new understanding of big-picture causality could potentially put a more constructive light on seemingly self-destructive choices made by black males, e.g., the choice to join gangs because they seem to offer opportunities for social and economic advancement otherwise lacking in some communities. Making this big-picture case is far from easy, as communicators already know, but it may be essential.
Note that one promising candidate for a focus of discussion may be implicit bias itself — as identified in psychology experiments. As a focus of communications, these points illustrate several criteria that our own research suggests can be important for effective communication on a fraught topic: (A) steering clear of the type of moral censure that can alienate many audience members; (B) pointing to “objective” facts that are harder to dispute; (C) conveying a relatively novel and unfamiliar point (rather than rehashing familiar claims and accusations); and (D) offering the hope that there are concrete steps that can help. (For various reasons discussed in the social science literature, including the so-called “just-world” orientation, Americans tend to respond more favorably to messages that offer hope — see, for example, Feinberg & Willer, 2010.)
More generally, in fact, communicators can be confident that promoting stories about solutions and success stories — interventions or causal factors of any kind that have altered black male outcomes for the better — will help engage new audiences. Whether in fiction shows, news accounts, press releases, or informal anecdotes, communicators are sure to gain new kinds of attention by offering audiences fresh and hopeful takes on the topic.
Another potentially promising direction may be pointing out (and calling out) the manipulative uses of race in the media and public discourse. Some of the social science evidence suggests that explicit inoculation against manipulators and manipulative messages can be very effective, and the strategy of opening people’s eyes to how they are being duped has been effective in other issues areas, such as cigarettes and smoking.
Finally, communicators should keep in mind that any of their efforts that can help promote greater contact between African-American males and others may be among the most effective steps they can take.