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Dickason Professor of Law
University of New Mexico School of Law
Excerpted from: Sherri Burr, Television and Societal Effects: an Analysis of Media Images of African-Americans in Historical Context, 4 Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 159-181, 171-181 (Spring 2001)(225 Footnotes)
Why do we care about television images and the economic forces that produce them? Television images have a pervasive effect on society. Because network television is an audiovisual medium that is piped free into ninety-nine percent of American homes, it is one of the most important vehicles for depicting cultural images to our population.
A. Foreign Perceptions
Cultural images can be either positive or negative. While traveling in Montana during the summer of 1997, I met a Dutch couple visiting the United States for the first time. Before boarding their plane, their friends advised them to be wary of images of Americans on television. "They don't look like the people on Melrose Place," they were told. "Americans are all fat." While it is true that over fifty percent of all Americans are overweight and twenty-five percent are obese, the image of an overweight society is not projected on television. Rather, television tends to depict images of very thin individuals such as the character Ally McBeal.
When the television images of African-Americans are contrasted with reality, African-Americans are arguably portrayed more negatively on television than in reality. Watching television could lead viewers to believe that all African- Americans may be as uneducated or as silly as Amos 'n' Andy, or crooks and drug dealers as depicted in Hill Street Blues and Law and Order. Further, because television shows created in the United States are broadcast all over the world, foreigners who see the images of African-Americans on television may believe that this represents African- Americans as a people. For example, cab drivers in New York City and Washington, D.C., many of who are recent immigrants, are reluctant to pick up African-Americans.
In November 1999, the images of African-Americans took center stage over a dispute with New York City taxi drivers who refused to pick up African- Americans, particularly men, even some who were famous. Movie star Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon fame, went public about his failure to get a cab for several hours in New York City. In a press conference, Glover described the number of New York City cabs that passed him, his daughter, and her friend. He also noted that the cab that eventually picked them up refused to let him sit in the front seat, despite his injured knee.
After his press conference, New York Mayor Rudi Guiliani announced a crackdown, indicating that cab drivers would face losing their licenses for failing to pick-up African-Americans. Journalists interviewed cab drivers, who talked about Blacks as violent, poor people who would either try to rob them, would want to be taken to dangerous neighborhoods, or would not have the fare. Given that these men were often born outside the United States, how did they develop these images of African- Americans, a people with whom they had little or no personal experience before coming to this country? The probable answer: television. After decades of negative portrayals of African-Americans, the perceptions of Blacks as violent, uneducated, lazy people have been put forth for foreigners to consume through their television screens.
B. U.S. Children React to Television Images
Within the United States, even children perceive these images as negative stereotypes. In a 1998 study conducted on behalf of Children Now, a nonprofit children's advocacy group, interviewers asked twelve hundred American children how often and in what roles do they see their race depicted on television. The results were revealing. Children more often associate positive qualities such as financial and academic success, leadership, and intelligence with White characters, and negative qualities such as lawbreaking, financial hardship, laziness, and goofy behavior with minority characters.
When children were asked about positive qualities, 58% of the children said that they see Whites on television as having a lot of money. Only 8% perceived minority characters as having a lot of money. As for negative qualities, 6% reported seeing White characters breaking the law or the rules compared with 47% of minority characters.
When asked how often they see their race on television, 71% of White children said they see their race depicted very often, compared to only 42% of African- Americans and 22% of Hispanic-Americans. As for who plays the boss, 71% of all children said someone who is White usually plays the role of boss, while 59% said Blacks typically play the criminal. "'You always see black people doing drugs and carrying around drugs, shooting people and stealing things,' one white girl said." Thus, after six decades of African-Americans on television, even children do not perceive this group as being presented in a positive light.
Children Now conducted another study, called Fall Colors: How Diverse is the 1999-2000 TV Season's Prime Time Line-Up? after the controversy in the fall of 1999 over the lack of minority characters on network television. This study analyzed the level of cast diversity on ninety-two prime-time network drama and comedy shows, and was "commissioned in part to provide networks with information regarding a quantification of their usage of minorities in prime-time casts." The findings indicated that the vast majority of characters on network series were White, and while there was a "visible African American presence" on these shows, other racial and ethnic minorities were underrepresented.
Furthermore, of the minority characters portrayed on these shows, very few were main cast members. According to Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now, "Any way you carve it, the more central a character is to a program, the more likely he or she is white." Thus, while the networks seem to have attempted to include some African-Americans, they have not gone far enough. As Salisbury stated, "Children in America tell us that being included in TV is a major signal of acceptance, respect and recognition. The absence of cultural images and characters that reflect them, conversely, is disturbing to kids. It affects their aspirations." . .