The Role of Television with regard to Racial Stereotypes

Mike Gosling
Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race
June 3, 1999

Does television work to break common stereotypes that have been set by American society with regard to race? This question has been asked numerous times by numerous people, and researched to a great extent in the effort of finding a definitive answer. While television has the capacity to portray all people with equal regard, studies have confirmed that it does not always do it. Many times, television, specifically here with a focus on sitcoms and the local news, actually enforces these stereotypes by its portrayal of minorities, and also the roles into which they are cast on many dramatic and comedic sitcoms.

One such study was conducted by Barrie Gunter in his, "Ethnicity and involvement in violence on television; nature and context of on-screen portrayals." (Journal of Black Studies: July, 1998) He says, "Although long portrayed in mostly low-status jobs, black television characters were generally law abiding." This statement suggests that minorities, blacks in particular here, have suffered discrimination as to how they are portrayed on television for a long period of time. Gunter believes that it is the television dramas that truly express the inequality of portrayal. He says, "The depiction of black characters, however, often depended on the type of program. Blacks more regularly achieved equality of status with whites in situation comedies, but in crime dramas, whites were usually more authoritative, dominant, and successful." While he believes that blacks were considered closer to being equal on sitcoms, others, as we will see later, disagree. Regular monitoring of prime-time drama programming on U.S. television over a period from the late 1960s to early 1980s consistently showed minority characters to be more frequently depicted as victims of violence than were white characters. Minorities were considerably more likely to fall victim once involved on-screen. In addition, once involved, ethnic minority groups were more likely to be shown as aggressors (4% and 0.6% of aggressors, respectively) than as victims (2.8% and 0.3% of victims, respectively). (Gunter) This study proves that minorities were more often depicted as victims of violence, while at the same time they are even further considered as aggressors in greater proportion than victims. This kind of study exposes that minorities are being cast as a very violent group of people, appearing in a higher percentage of violent acts per capita than their white counterparts. This does little to break the stereotype of minorities as 'criminals and aggressors.' Instead it actually enforces such a stereotype.

Another study of great interest for this topic was done in May of 1998 and focused on a slightly different aspect of the problem. The study was conducted by 'Children Now' and was called "A Different World: Children's Perception of Race and Class in the Media." Researchers were interested to learn not only what activities minorities were engaged in on television, but also what roles they were allowed to play, with no concern for their actions in the role. They simply wanted to learn of the perception that American children have about minorities roles on television. The results of the study showed that children believed that minorities were depicted more negatively than whites on TV. The researchers gathered the opinions of 1,200 children between the ages of 10 and 17 in various cities. The study showed that 66 percent of white actors have positive roles on TV but few actors of African, Latino and Asian descent have such roles; less than 35% of these ethnic descents are believed to be cast into similar positive roles. The study also found that white characters are more often rich and well-educated while characters of color often break the law, are lazy and "act goofy." The message that young black teens believe is expressed is one that tells them, "You don't have a chance... You'll never get on TV... You're not good enough." Respondents said that a boss, doctor, or secretary is much more likely to be white, while a maid or janitor is more likely to be black or Latino. The respondents believed that while a minority has the opportunity to be a positive-acting character on a sitcom, he would not be portrayed as a high-ranking professional. Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now, said, "The most stunning result was how clearly, how powerfully and how early kids saw inequalities across entertainment television and TV news." To survey information for the study the children watched news, dramas and comedies that aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, UPN, and the WB between 7 and 10 p.m. These six networks are considered as the main public television networks.

Further evidence supports the hypothesis that television enforces common racial stereotypes, rather than working to destroy them. Bill Cosby and others strongly criticize how sitcoms depict black life In Joshua Hammer's, "Must blacks be buffoons?" (Newsweek Oct 26, 1992). They say that although there are more television comedies featuring Black actors than ever before, the images they project are stereotypical and negative. Blacks play the roles of 'silly neighborhood clowns,' or drug dealing gangsters. Bill Cosby feels so strongly about this issue in part because his show, The Cosby Show, was one Black show that did not fall under the label of any of these stereotypes. While The Cosby Show was one sitcom that did not depict black life in a negative view, viewers had become so accustomed by the late 70's to shows that patronized blacks that there was a backlash against such a show; it was frequently dissed for being fake. Society had bought into the stereotypes of blacks as poor and unprofessional, and The Cosby Show completely vanquished this stereotype. People wrote to their newspapers to complain that it was unimaginable that blacks might live in a situation where the kids are smart and nurtured, Mom and Dad are gainfully employed, and their friends and neighbors represent the "rich racial and ethnic tapestry that is America." An article in, Ebony: Nov. 1995, disagrees. The author comments on what he believes The Cosby Show did for racial stereotypes in America. " The Cosby Show.. wasn't just a show. It was a phenomenon--for NBC, television and all of America. It transformed NBC- which B.C., before Cosby, finished dead last in the primetime viewer battle for nine straight years- into the No.1 network. In fact, the show was such a runaway hit, it revived the situation comedy... And, yes, it made truckloads of money... But the show's true greatness can't be measured in money or ratings or awards. The true measure of its success, many agree, lies in its most important and enduring contribution: the way it shattered all the stereotypes television ever heaped on black people; and how, with warmth and humanity and truth, it revolutionized--and forever changed--the way America views the black family." While The Cosby Show was phenomenal at providing a non-stereotyped view of black life, new black sitcoms have not been able to follow suit with continued positive programming.

Instead, new shows are unfortunately moving back into the stereotypical roles of blacks. One show in particular, The PJs (Fox, Tuesdays at 8:30 P.M. Eastern), has drawn much criticism for its depiction of blacks. This new show was created by comedy favorite Eddie Murphy, with the help of claymation professional Will Vinton. The storyline is based in the Hilton-Jacobs housing project ("PJs" refers to the projects) in an unnamed city. The PJs is complete with all the stereotypical minority characters that can be put in one show. "There's the voodoo woman who is prone to sticking dolls with pins; the old woman who is hard of hearing and eats dog food; the philosophical crackhead; and the kid who is so obese that his parents put a sign around his neck asking people not to feed him."

How has America taken to Eddie Murphy's new comedy? Well, the show seems to be gaining a following, after a rough start. But this is not to say that it hasn't drawn the ire of blacks, especially filmmaker Spike Lee. In January, Lee, who said he was speaking for himself and not an entire race, told the 'Television Critics Association' that he believed the show to be "really hateful towards blacks." He also said The P35 showed "no love for black culture." Furthermore, the website Channel 4000 posted some responses to the show. One viewer said it was "degrading, embarrassing, humiliating material being pushed into the mainstream. This show will negatively influence people's perceptions of black people, period." It is a shame that new shows are created which further influence American stereotypes of minorities, and positive shows such as The Cosby Show in the '80's can't come around more frequently.

Local news is commonly criticized as well. For example, picture these scenes from two local TV news stories:

* A young pilot accepts the cheers of well wishers as she completes a solo cross-country flight, becoming the youngest person ever to do this.

* A distraught young woman describes how a sniper picked off children at play in the courtyard of her apartment building. (Woodruff, 1998)

If you envisioned a white face for the first speaker and a minority for the second, chances are good that you are a regular viewer of TV news. This is what can be called "media bias," something that is particularly evident in the portrayal of minorities. The Berkeley Studies Media Group did a study of youth on the local news, and found some more interesting and conclusive results with regard to the exposure of white versus minority youths on the news.

"We soon discovered that the speaking roles provided to youth of color and those offered to white youth differed. To start with, more white youth were given opportunities to speak in local news stories. However, in every violence-related role where youth did speak--either as a victim, a witness of violence, a criminal or suspect--youth of color were heard in these roles in higher proportions than their white counterparts. By contrast, a higher percentage of white youth spoke in the role of victim of unintentional injury, where their status is likely to engender sympathy." The most common role for youth of any race on the news was as a 'person on the street,' interviewed for their perspectives or comments on an issue or event. This area of the study showed similar results. While youth of all races were interviewed, "white youth appeared more often as 'person on the street' in stories about children's emotional response to the wildfires, fitness, video games and a protest over the filming of 'Beverly Hills 90210' on Hermosa Beach." By contrast, when youth of color were interviewed as a 'person on the street,' it was more often as "neighbors of crime victims and in stories on crime threatening local businesses, drug dealing and gang initiations. Even when they were not portrayed as direct participants in these neighborhood problems, minority youth were still affiliated in the public's mind with such circumstances in news coverage." Even a positive story such as a youth achiever' also displayed the color gap. "White achievers in our sample included a young pilot, college students who built a solar car, young magicians and musicians auditioning for a show, a college swimmer making her comeback after severe injury, and a blind track star." However, the minority achievers were the "18-year-old Miss America, high school football players, an undocumented immigrant who was valedictorian of his class, former gang members trying to turn their lives around, and inner-city kids who won a chance to play golf with the pros for a day." Even when minority youth were shown in positive circumstances, the tendency was still to depict their lives within stereotypical story lines," and in a patronizing manner. Coverage such as this by the media works to enforce common stereotypes of minorities. Instead of capitalizing on a fabulous opportunity to show all people in equal regard, and celebrate the true accomplishments of minorities as well as whites, the media, while not always deliberately, effectively portrays whites in a more positive light.

It is evident from this research that has been conducted and studied that minorities are not represented equally on television. Whether it is the casting of their roles on sitcoms, the actions that their characters commit on television dramas, or even a fair chance at representation on the local news, we can see that the opportunities are not always equal. Why this is the case is not really known. It is a problem with society, not simply the media, that causes America to still hold racially biased stereotypes. These stereotypes can be alleviated with the help of television, and more programs such as The Cosby Show, which portray blacks as equal in the community as compared with whites. But other actions need to be taken as well, television can only go so far. What television can do, however, is be conscious that programs are working to break stereotypes, and be cautious of airing programs that re-enforce stereotypes instead. This can only happen with the development of new shows that fit this standard. These shows need to represent the views and true lives of minorities, while portraying minority characters in positive roles with constructive activities. This can be done by creative thoughts from a minority director who can truly represent his culture's experience. With regard to the local news, it is difficult to say what can be done to overcome the prejudiced stereotypes. The main solution is giving all individuals the opportunity to express their opinions and cultures, and reward all positive activities in the community, not just the actions of whites, while patronizing the accomplishments of the minorities. If all people can simply he represented equally, all people will eventually be viewed equally as well, and that is the common goal.


Gunter, Barrie Ethnicity and involvement in violence on television; nature and context of on-screen portrayals. Journal of Black Studies v28, n6 (July, 1998):683 (21 pages)

Hammer, Joshua Must blacks be buffoons? Bill Cosby and others blast how sitcoms depict African-American life. Newsweek vi 20, n 17 (Oct 26, 1992)70 (2 pages).

McKissack, Fred Television's Black Humor. (portrayals of African Americans on TV) Progressive v63, n4 (April, 1999):39(1 pages).

What's back, black and new. (the Fall 1998 television program lineup) Ebony v53, n12 (Oct, 1998):122 (4 pages)

Woodruff, Katie Youth and Race on Local TV News. Nieman Reports v52, n4 (Winter, 1998):43 (1 pages).

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