Mass Media in the White Man's World

Christy La Pierre
Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race
June 4,1999

In the eyes of many minority groups, the mass media produced in the United States may be a reflection of Anglo views regarding non-Anglo communities. "The dominate culture must constantly strive to expand its hegemony while fending off challenges and interventions from the very classes and groups it seeks to subjugate," (Split Image, African Americans in the Mass Media, pg. 6). In American society, by reproducing the ideological hegemony of the dominant white culture, the mass media help to legitimate the inequalities in class and race relations. Two underrepresented and misrepresented minorities in the media today and in the past are African-Americans and Latinos. African-Americans and Latinos have experienced discrimination for years through print news and entertainment television. Not surprisingly, both of these mediums have been dominated by the Anglo-culture and have therefore been structured to harbor the needs and communicate the ideas of this controlling class.

African-Americans have been overlooked and dismissed in many of the mass media mediums controlled by the Anglo community. "Recognition by the press or radio or magazines or newsreels testifies that one has arrived. The audiences of the mass media apparently subscribe to the circular belief: If you really matter, you will be at the focus of mass attention, and if you are at the focus of mass attention, then surely you must really matter," (Mass Media in America, pg. 5). Television confers status on those individuals and groups it selects for placement in the public eye, telling the viewer who and what is important to know about, think about, and have feelings about. Hence, those who are made visible through television become worthy of attention and concern; those whom television ignores remain invisible. Sadly, during the 1 960s' when civil-rights was front-page language, the African-American had not arrived. Black visibility in media was generally low, particularly in regard to their routine portrayal as part of society. However when blacks did appear on the television screen they were presented as whites saw them, not as they saw themselves.

During the 1960s the plight of the African-American seemed to be the only newsworthy aspect of his life. After the Watts Riots had taken place many black intellectuals were eager to make outsiders aware of the discrimination that African-Americans had been forced to endure through printed media. One psychiatrist stated, "African-Americans are portrayed in ninety percent of the stories about them as problems," (Minorities and Media, pg. 13). Still today, African-Americans can still be seen negatively plastered across national newspapers and magazines. Cut off from the general world of the African-American, media are often out of touch with basic African-American attitudes and while some media attempt to bridge this gulf of misunderstanding, they usually communicate ineptly.

Black and white press, by definition, still look at the same event/action from different perspectives, thus testifying to the continuing need for a black press. Through the years, those who were reading black press articles about various incidents received a very different message from those who only read the writings of general market press writers. Many African-Americans found that black circulation newspapers could be a valuable source of truth in their community. These African-Americans also felt that there was a direct historical relationship between black papers and black freedom.

Similar to print news, public television, conceived as alternative programming to serve needs and interests not met by the commercial industry, has consistently failed to address the concerns of African-American groups. For nearly twenty-five years public television merely perpetuated the imagery of African-Americans solidly established by the dominant culture. Since the 1960s, African-Americans have repeatedly appealed to the system for their stereotypical claims. Sadly however, they were unable to penetrate the system in any viable way until well into 1980s.

Blacks are still looked upon as inferior, lazy, dumb, and dishonest; either clowns or crooks; professional quacks and thieves without adequate skill and ethics. Such was the stereotyped portrayal of blacks perpetuated by network television in the CBS series, Amos ‘n’ Andy. First broadcast on radio in 1929, Amos 'n 'Andy was originally created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white men who played the major characters. The radio program was so popular that a television version-with the characters in blackface makeup-was created to inaugurate the new medium in a special demonstration at the 1939 world's fair. CBS decided to turn Amos ‘n’ Andy into a television series in the early 1950s, using black actors. "From 1951 until the network barred syndication and overseas sales of the program in 1966, the presentations of blacks was patently offensive. Although television had inherited Amos ‘n’ Andy from radio, the visual medium was explicit and glaring in its degradation and 'black' humor," (Impact of Mass Media, pg. 337). The show's creators expressed some concern over the visual adaptation of the series. However, their concern did not reflect a sensitivity to blacks or the critical objections of the black community; instead the appeasement was in deference to the discomfort that white viewers may have experienced in seeing blacks on the television screen.

To avoid affronting the sensibilities of a white audience and thereby risking the wrath of sponsors, network television focused its attention on blacks in roles that exploited the stereotype. "As singers and tap dancers, blacks sustained the image of 'having rhythm;' as maids, black women were doting 'Aunt Jemimas' whose obeisant manner was met with condescension; as handymen, black men were basically slow-witted and recalcitrant misfits," (Mass Communication.' Concepts and Issues in the Mass Media, pg. 153). To reinforce the idea of not taking blacks seriously, such "slice of life" programs portrayed them in contextual formats of comedy-situations in which they were ridiculed and laughed at under the guise of entertainment.

Hispanics, similar to African-Americans have been and are underrepresented and misrepresented in the media, thus, perpetuating negative perceptions and causing many Latinos to question their identity and experience difficulty when attempting to define themselves. Today, Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the United States. Ironically, the national press called Chicanos (Latinos of Mexican descent) the "'invisible minority' and 'the minority nobody knows' when it suddenly discovered Chicanos in the late 1960s," (Minorities and Media, pg. 109). However, much of the invisibility and ignorance was in the minds of the writers and editors. Consistent coverage of Chicanos and other Latinos in the national media was virtually nonexistent in the first seven decades of the twentieth century. "A survey of magazine citations in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature from 1890 to 1970 reveals very few articles about Latinos in the United States," (Minorities and Media, pg. 115). Articles that were written often had a crisis or negative overtone. That is, they were written during periods when Mexican labor or immigration impacted national policy or when Latinos were involved in civil strife. Speaking to a 1969 media conference in San Antonio, veteran Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar said, "The Mexican-American beat in the past was nonexistent... Before the recent racial turmoil, Mexican-Americans were something that vaguely were there but nothing which warranted comprehensive coverage-unless it concerned, in my opinion, such badly reported stories as the Pachuco race riots in Los Angeles or the Bracero program's effect on Mexican-Americans," (Latin Looks: Images ofLatinas and Latinos in the US Media, pg. 38). During the 1 960s when the news media did finally decide to "discover" the barrio, stories were often inaccurate and nearly always revealed more of the writers' own stereotypes than the characteristics of the people about whom they tried to write. For instance, a Time magazine reporter riding through East Los Angeles in 1967 saw mostly "tawdry taco joints and rollicking cantinas," smelled "the reek of cheap wine [and] ... the fumes of frying tortillas," and heard "the machine gun patter of slung Spanish," (Impact of Mass Media, pg. 351). Such slanted reporting did little to promote inter-group understanding; rather it reinforced the prejudices of many in the magazine's audience. One reason for such biased and inaccurate reporting was that few Latinos worked as reporters and editors on Anglo publications during that period. Although many broadcasters and publications made affirmative efforts to hire Latinos in the late 1960s and early 197Os, the numbers hired were far below fair representation of the population.

Coverage of Latinos in Anglo media has increased with the population growth. But news reporters still tend to place too much emphasis on stories featuring "problem people"-Latinos either causing or beset by problems, such as undocumented residents, youth gangs, or recent arrivals. Other stories often have a "zoo appeal" by featuring Latinos on national holidays, celebrating cultural fiestas, or in their native costumes, (Impact of Mass Media, pg. 349). While more examples of accurate news reporting can be found now than in earlier periods, the media's preoccupation with "problem people" and "zoo stories" ignores many of the important daily happenings in the Latino community.

Hispanics, like African-Americans, are not only misrepresented in entertainment television, but are also many times negatively portrayed. These negative portrayals fall into two broad categories. The first category involves general "good vs. evil't or "successful vs. unsuccessful" roles. On one hand, Latinos are less likely than other groups to be cast in positive roles; on the other hand, Hispanics are more likely than other groups to be portrayed negatively. The second category involves characterizations that are often crudely stereotypical.

Not only are Hispanics portrayed negatively in a traditional "good vs. evil" sense, they frequently appear on television as stereotypes and caricatures. In the Michigan State University study covering fictional programming over three TV seasons, Greenberg and Baptista-Fernandez found that "Hispanic characters are mostly males, of dark complexion, with dark hair, most often with heavy accents. Women are absent and insignificant," (Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the US. Media, pg. 97). One common media stereotype is that Hispanics are poor, of low socioeconomic status, and lazy. In general, Latinos were not seen as people with family values, stable romantic relationships, or interest in honorable careers. These Latino stereotypes were personified through Desi Arnaz's character "Ricky Ricardo" in the long running show I Love Lucy. On uncountable occasions one could see Desi Arnaz's Latin temperament explode into a torrent of Spanish when Lucy's ill-fated activities were revealed.

In the 1960s two other television programs stood out for their Latino portrayals. In The Real McCoys (1957-1963), Tony Martinez played farmhand Pepino Garcia, a role consistent with audience expectations. A non-Latino carried the TV image of the simple-minded Mexican when The Bill Dana Show appeared in 1963 for a two-year run. Dana's opening line "with a thick Mexican accent became a virtual national catch-phrase because of his nightclub act and record sales: 'My name, Jose Jimenez,' (Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the US. Media; pg. 82). In the show Jimenez worked as a bellhop whose ineptness constantly got him into comedic situations.

The roles in which Hispanics played in entertainment television were manifested, as a result of the condescending visions of Hispanics in society. "Between 1955 and 1986, proportionately fewer Hispanic characters were professionals or executives and more were unskilled laborers," (Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the US. Media, pg. 69). Fewer Hispanics had starring roles, were positively portrayed, or succeeded in attaining their goals. In addition, because of their negative and criminal roles, Latinos stood apart from other characters in the methods they adopted to attain their goals. They were more likely than either whites or blacks to use violence and deceit.

Latinos like African-Americans are searching for a solution in regards to biased media. They have discovered that in order to overcome the censorship and portrayed racial stereotypes of today, they must create their own mediums, expressing the ideas of their communities, and supporting the ideals of their people. Hence, in attempts to find a solution to Anglo-dominated mediums, these specific minority groups have strived to develop modest independent newspapers and entertainment television stations with hopes that these small developments will lead to greater and more impartial representation in the future.

Ethnic minority stereotyping is dependent upon the social, political, and economic realities of the moment, and changes accordingly. At any given historical period the nature of a specific minority group's portrayal may be much more positive than another's. Basic negative traits, however, have never been abandoned totally, although specific instances of mass guilt purging periodically appear in entertainment media. Ethnically prejudicial stereotyping is debilitative to a society, especially one as culturally diverse as the United States. Not only does it work against common understanding and the recognition of the family of humankind, it provides succeeding generations of minorities and non-minorities alike with distorted self-images. The coupling of biased portrayals with the social and psychological power of mass entertainment threatens the maturation of American society. But the attitudinal change must begin with the masses, because producers of mass entertainment are, generally, motivated more by economic incentive than by social morality.

White domination in the mass media, with its pervasive control over the portrayal and participation of African-Americans and Latinos in those media, has disclosed major cultural contradictions. In printed media and entertainment media it is evident that white owners and producers have appropriated aspects of the African-American and Latino cultures in order to enrich the mass media mainstream and to enrich themselves. The black and Hispanic images mass produced by them, however, have been filtered through the racial misconceptions and fantasies of the dominant white culture, which has tended to deny the existence of a rich and resilient black and Hispanic culture of equal worth. Although the struggle for equality has begun, as illustrated through print news and entertainment television, discrimination of minority races has yet to disappear.


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Hiebert, Ray. (1988). Impact of Mass Media. New York; Longman Inc.

Pember, Don. (1987). Mass Media in America. Chicago; Science Research Associates, Inc.

Rodriguez, Clara. (1 997). Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the US. Media.

Boulder, CO; Westview Press.

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