Afro-phobic or Afro-publicist 1
Running head: AFRO-PHOBIC OR AFRO-PUBLICIST
Afro-phobic or Afro-publicist?
The role of the media in the social identity of African Americans
Stephanie J. Dautenhahn
Afro-phobic or Afro-Publicist 2
There has been much debate over the perception of African Americans in the media and how it affects their self-identity. It is easy to find examples of bias in portraying African Americans, but not a lot of causal research to prove that it causes problems with self-identity. A case can even be made that the amount of media presence by African Americans, whether biased or un-biased, has greatly helped to unify and give voice to a small minority group.
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Afro-phobic or Afro-publicist?
The role of the media in the social identity of African Americans
According to the United States Census Bureau (2001), 12.3% of all people reporting as one race reported they were Black or African American. This ethnic identity is now the second biggest minority in the United States. It also refers to a group of people who have been in this country for as long as it has existed. However, through the persecution of slavery, the rigors of segregation, and the continuing latent prejudice; African Americans are still searching for their true identity.
African American Identity
Just as children that were adopted tend to long for a true identity most of their lives, so is the plight of the African American. Stolen from their homeland and forced into enslavement in a new country, African Americans were basically victims of identity theft. Although much progress has been made in the way of an American identity for African Americans, a true identity has not yet been found. According to W.E.B DuBois (1903) The history of the American Negro is the history of this strifethis longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. (p. 68)
Many African Americans feel the same as Kali Tal (1996) when she says, After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. She also states, One ever feels his twoness an American, a Negro, two souls, two
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thoughts, two unreconciled arrives; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. A quick look at American history makes it easy to understand where this split identity stems from.
According to PBS African American World Timeline (2004) there is a long standing history of not granting African Americans an identity. Before 1787, of course, African Americans were slaves and only thought of as chattel. In 1787 the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It provided for the continuation of the slave trade for another 20 years and stipulated that a slave counted as three-fifths of a man for purposes of representation by government. In 1865 some headway was gained when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, outlawing slavery and establishing a Freedmens Bureau to assist former slaves. Also in 1865 Union General, William T. Sherman issued a field order setting aside 40-acre plots of land in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida for African Americans to settle. Yet, in 1866, all-white legislatures in the former Confederate states passed the, so called, Black Codes sharply cutting the freedom of African Americans and virtually re-enslaving the race. Since that time there have been many gains and set-backs for African Americans.
Given the history of the United States treatment of African Americans, it is easy to understand how they could struggle for their true identity. Perhaps James Jones (1991) says it best when he states, Black personality is in part an adaptation to the political contours of racism. The conflict between the freedoms and rights of United States citizens is juxtaposed to the denial of freedom and rights that is the history of the African American presence in this country. If we view personality as the resultant of coping pattern and socialization directives, then black personality is, in part, the cumulative representation of the effects of racism over four centuries. It reflects over time, the effects of the form and structure racism takes, and comes to signal the
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nature of race relations at any point in time. (p.305) This would lend credence to the fact that African Americans do, of course, have an identity, but it is dependent on the identity of the Caucasian race at that time.
Alain Locke (1925) explains the progressive and upbeat side of African American identity:
In the last decade something beyond the watch and guard of statistics has happened in the life of the American Negro and the three norms who have traditionally presided over the Negro problem have a changeling in their laps. The Sociologist, The Philanthropist, the Race-leader are not unaware of the New Negro but they are at a loss to account for him. He simply cannot be swathed in their formulae. For the younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology; the new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of the professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life. Could such a metamorphosis have taken place as suddenly as it has appeared to? The answer is no; not because the New Negro is not here, but because the Old Negro had long become more of a myth than a man. The Old Negro, we must remember, was a creature of moral debate and historical controversy. His has been a stock figure perpetuated as an historical fiction partly in innocent sentimentalism, partly in deliberate reactionism. The Negro himself has contributed his share to this through a sort of protective social mimicry forced upon him by the adverse circumstances of dependence. So for generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being –a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be “kept down,” or “in his place,” or “helped up,” to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden. The thinking Negro even has been induced to share this same general attitude, to focus his attention on controversial issues, to see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality. Through having had to appeal from the unjust stereotypes of his oppressors and
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traducers to those of his liberators, friends and benefactors he has subscribed to the traditional positions from which his case has been viewed. Little true social or self-understanding has or could come from such a situation.
But while the minds of most of us, black and white, have thus burrowed in the trenches of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the actual march of development has simply flanked these positions, necessitating a sudden reorientation of view. We have not been watching in the right direction; set worth and South on a sectional axis, eve have not noticed the East till the sun has us blinking.
Recall how suddenly the Negro spirituals revealed themselves; suppressed for generations under the stereotypes of Wesleyan hymn harmony, secretive, half-ashamed, until the courage of being natural brought them out–and behold, there was folk-music. Similarly the mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority. By shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem we are achieving something like a spiritual emancipation. Until recently, lacking self-understanding, we have been almost as much of a problem to ourselves as we still are to others. But the decade that found us with a problem has left us with only a task. The multitude perhaps feels as yet only a strange relief and a new vague urge, but the thinking few know that in the reaction the vital inner grip of prejudice has been broken.
It does not follow that if the Negro were better known, he would be better liked or better treated. But mutual understanding is basic for any subsequent cooperation and adjustment. The effort toward this will at least have the effect of remedying in large part what has been the most unsatisfactory feature of our present stage of race relationships in America, namely the fact that
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the more intelligent and representative elements of the two race groups have at so many points got quite out of vital touch with one another. (p. 631)
Even in the highest times of African American identity there were still questions to be answered. Now those questions lead to progressive thinking like Lockes, middle of the road thinking and extremist thinking.
One example of middle-of-the-road thinking can be seen in a post by Malcolm Frierson (2004) to a discussion board using the topic of what label to give African Americans. He states:
It is the right of the individual to be self-defining. Black is a color, not a term for a race of people in this millennium. The word was made beautiful and strong in the 60s and beyond for obvious reasons. That effort was admirable and effective, but now fairly done. It is time to move forward.
African American makes better present-day sense. It linguistically puts the race on more comfortable ground. It’s disturbing to look at three men and call one Chinese, the other Italian, and the other “black.”
Many “whites” don’t complain because they sit atop this name problem. The whole system was constructed to glorify the imperialists and belittle the subjects. Also, many “whites” and “blacks” alike beg for an end to this mess because “we’re all Americans.” Yeah right! Be honest. You can’t send your best friend on a blind date with someone that you describe simply as “American.”
Why do “blacks” have to go through this more than any other American subgroup? Asian Americans, Italian Americans, and Philipino Americans often become Asians, Italians, and Philippines without ridicule or persecution. (Asians further become Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese,
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and more!) The point is that Ive never heard the phrase, Go back to . . . followed by any place other than Africa.
My grand answer is that we all identify with our most dominant ancestral line or native country German, Spanish, Portuguese, Jamaican, what have you. It should precede the understood “American” part. But again, we should respect individual’s rights to be self-defining. One “black” problem is that we haven’t been to Africa and are largely ashamed of it. How ignorant and sad. We should proudly use African with American just like other groups use their places of origin and/or native countries.
Unfortunately this viewpoint is just the common middle-ground between the two poles.
The other pole is a belief best illustrated by the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party. They feel that, African People born and living in over 113 countries around the world are one People, with one identity, one history, one culture, one Nation and one destiny. We have one common enemy. We suffer from disunity, disorganization and ideological confusion. And we have only one scientific and correct solution, Pan-Africanism: the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism.” They feel that African people that have been born or are living outside of Africa are deliberately kept ignorant of Africa and her achievements through European capitalism. They also feel that people inside of Africa are tricked into living in separate countries because of the divide and rule tactic used by Europeans. It is this pole that gets the most voice in the media and probably this pole which leads to the bias of media outlets against African Americans.
Perhaps the earliest example of media bias against African Americans, whether intended or not, came from 19th Century naturalists that divided mankind into Caucasians, Mongolians,
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Malayans, Ethiopians and (native) American races. The Caucasians were defined as smart and wise, the Mongolians crafty and literal, the Ethiopians/negros dumb and ape-like. This bias is plain and vulgar, but possibly not malicious in intent. Today our media comes from less than ten gigantic media conglomerates in the United States. Salim Muwakkil (1999) points out that Virtually all of our information, our cultural narratives, and our global images derive from institutions whose major goal is to pay handsome dividends to stockholders. (p. 2) He also points out that black-owned media operations are becoming increasingly rare as corporate conglomerates continue to buy up more property. The fear Muwakkil has is the mainstream will continue to distort the image of African Americans without challenge to the point that their Afro-phobic tendencies will be encouraged and reinforced. Muwakkil makes a very strong point when he cites the Kerner Commissions findings:
What’s more, the Kerner Commission (formally known as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders), which was charged with finding the reasons for the long-hot-summer rebellions, had concluded that the United States was headed dangerously toward “two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” It blamed the urban unrest on persistent racial discrimination and a historical legacy of disadvantage, but it also singled out the nation’s news media for censure. The media treated African Americans as invisible, the commission concluded, and failed to communicate to white audiences “a feeling for the difficulties and frustrations of being a Negro in the United States.” (p. 1)
Although this is good evidence of the fairly blunt media bias in the United States, it is somewhat outdated.
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In the book, The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America, Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki (2000) point out some astounding statistics from studies done on American television:
While Black actors are now more numerous in film, it’s an open question as to how well they’re being represented. In the top movies of 1996:
Black female movie characters shown using vulgar profanity: 89%.
White female movie characters shown using vulgar profanity: 17%.
Black female movie characters shown being physically violent: 56%.
White female movie characters shown being physically violent: 11%.
Black female movie characters shown being restrained: 55%.
White female movie characters shown being restrained: 6%.
Television ads now show many Blacks and eschew stereotypes. However, hidden patterns of differentiation and distance emerge on close analysis. Not surprisingly, for instance, Blacks do not touch Whites in the ads, but (unlike Whites) they rarely even touch each other, conveying a subtle message of Black skin as taboo. A hierarchy of racial preference is embedded within the casting of commercials. Consider these figures from a large prime time sample:
Of the 105 commercials for autos or trucks that showed only one race, the percentage all-White: 100%.
Of the 74 commercials for perfumes that showed only one race, the percentage all-White: 98%.
Of the 47 commercials for jewelry or cosmetics that showed only one race, the percentage all-White: 100%.
Network news tends to “ghettoize” Blacks. Increasingly, African Americans appear mostly in crime, sports and entertainment stories. Rarely are Blacks shown making an important contribution to the serious business of the nation. Sampling network news shows:
Number of soundbites on foreign affairs uttered by Whites: 99; by Blacks: 1.
Number of soundbites on economics uttered by Whites: 86; by Blacks: 1.
Number of soundbites on electoral politics uttered by Whites: 79; by Blacks: 0.
Number of soundbites on sports and entertainment uttered by Whites: 35; by Blacks: 11.
Number of soundbites on crime uttered by Whites: 149; by Blacks: 24.
Black defendants are simply treated differently on local TV news from their White counterparts:
Times more likely that a mug shot of the accused will appear in a local TV news report when the defendant is Black rather than White: 4.
Times more likely that the accused will be shown physically restrained in a local TV news report when the defendant is Black rather than White: 2.
Times less likely that the name of the accused will be shown on screen in a local TV news report when the defendant is Black rather than White: 2
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Unfortunately, this is not the only blunt evidence of a media stereotype.
A website entitled YAAAMS Young African-Americans Against Media Stereotypes (2004) makes some very valid arguments about the media bias. One example they use is the NBA. They point out that it is perceived that most black NBA players marry white women, which was marginally supported by a small impromptu survey by this author. In fact, only 10 percent of African American players are married to white women. They also feel that all Black athletes get a bad rap by the media, pointing out that when Black athletes get into trouble it is reported much more than when White athletes behave in the same manner or worse. They state that, Last year, less than 50 of the 1500+ pro black athletes (thats 3 percent) got into trouble with the law. But because of the sensationalized, over-hyped coverage of this 3 percent, the media has effectively undermined the image of all professional black athletes. They also point out that sportscasters point out only the athletic abilities of black athletes while citing the intelligence and savvy of white athletes. This leads people to believe that black athletes achieve greatness by some fluke of evolution instead of just plain talent and hard work. There are many more examples of media bias against African Americans and they are too numerous to mention individually. The bottom line is that there is certainly a very strong case for media bias against African Americans.
Any actor worth his weight in salt will quickly tell you that no publicity is bad publicity. It is logical then, to see the media (biased or not) as a great tool for unifying and lending a voice to the African American community. It is even very logical to say that a more biased media outlet gives African Americans more publicity as Americans love bad press. Knowing of the media bias and the beauty of any type of publicity, Bill Cosby has recently spoken out about African Americans. Not
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surprisingly, his remarks came shortly before a new show of his was going to begin being aired. Cosby ranted that Black youth are wearing ridiculous oversized clothing, and attacked lower class Blacks for not speaking proper English, not raising their kids properly, and naming them silly names. Cosby is a smart man and understands how to tap into resources available to him and how to turn around a media bias to work for him.
Another example of an African American trying to turn the bias around is seen in Richard Pryor. Keith M. Woods (1995) writes about how the word nigger is harmful. He points out that Richard Pryor tried to use the word nigger to describe himself and turned it into his career. The same can be said for the rap group Niggas with Attitudes, and similarly so with young black people today. He also notes that in his autobiography Nigger , Dick Gregory dedicated the book to his mother, writing Dear Momma Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word nigger again, remember they are advertising my book.
This author did an impromptu survey of 12 subjects to find out what peoples perceptions were of the number of African Americans in the United States. It is, of course, understood that the survey was very limited in about every way, but did fit within the researchers budget. When asked, What percentage of the population of the United States is African American or Black? the subjects answers were all higher than the Census Bureaus 12.3%. The lowest answer was 15%, while no other answer was under 23%. The highest answer was 45%. It is clear that within the population of the survey, African Americans are perceived to be much greater in number. It is quite possible that the reason for this false perception is the media bias and the amount of media coverage given to African Americans.
When speaking of television commercials it is easy to logically thwart the idea of a media bias. Commercials are meant to reach a target audience and it is hard to fathom any producer that
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would target only 12.3% of the population. In speaking of the aforementioned sound bites on network news, one could argue that the percentages actually equal out. If 86 are by Whites and 1 is by a Black it is close to equal with the percentages of population. This formula works for most of the aforementioned research to show a bias against African Americans. Could it be that African Americans also have the perception that their population is much greater than what it is? Or is it that they have been unfairly pushed into a victim status as a race that does not improve much with each generation?
No matter whether the media bias is intentional or not, perceived or reality based, blatant or subliminal, it is clear that the media is not maliciously harming African Americans, but actually lending a small minority a very large voice to air its dissent with issues. However, the perceived media bias does seem to be very responsible in hurting the possibility of a strong identity for African Americans. This identity confusion probably also plays back into a perceived bias in the media. Hopefully in the near future African Americans can be completely un-inhibited and air their true identities and Caucasians can be secure enough to accept and nourish those identities.
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All-African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party. Brochure (1994). Retrieved July 25, 2004 from
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903) The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.; Cambridge: University Press John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A., p. 68
Entman, R. M. and Andrew R.. (2000). The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race inAmerica. University of Chicago Press
Frierson, M. (2004) Black, black, or African American? Feedback Poynter Online Retrieved July 25, 2004 from http://www.poynter.org/article_feedback/article_feedback_list.asp?id=51320
Fudjud, D. (2003) Black, black, or African American? Feedback Poynter Online Retrieved July 25, 2004 from http://www.poynter.org/article_feedback/article_feedback_list.asp?id=51320
Jones, J. (1991). “The Politics of Personality: Being Black in America.” In Reginald Jones
(ed.) Black Psychology 3rd Edition, 305-318.
Locke, A. (1925) Enter the New Negro. A hypermedia edition of the March 1925 Survey Graphic Harlem Number Retrieved July 25, 2004 from http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/harlem/LocEnteF.html
Muwakkil, S. (1999). Corporate Media, Alternative Press, and African Americans MediaAlliance, Retrieved July 25, 2004 from
PBS. (2002) African American World Timeline. Retrieved July 25, 2004 from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/timeline/early_01.html
Tal, K. (1996) The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: African American Critical Theory and Cyberculture The Kali Tal Homepage Retrieved July 25 fromhttp://www.freshmonsters.com/kalital/Text/Articles/whiteness.html
U.S. Census Bureau (2001) Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin. Census 2000 Website Retrieved July 25, 2004 from http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/2001/cb01cn61.html
Woods, K. M. (1995) An Essay on a Wickedly Powerful Word Poynter Online Retrieved July 25,
2004 from http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=5603
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Worthy, D. (2004) Cosbys Rant Reverberates Through the Black Press NCM Retrieved July 25, 2004 from http://news.ncmonline.com/news/view_article.html?article_id= c3a1cf5b268909dfee0db53722131aee
Young African-Americans Against Media Stereotypes (2004) Black Athletes and the Media. YAAMS WEBSITE Retrieved July 25, 2004 from http://www.yaaams.org/blackathletes.shtml
Young African-Americans Against Media Stereotypes (2004) The NBA and White Wives. YAAAMS Website Retrieved July 25, 2004 from http://www.yaaams.org/whitewives.shtml