Negative Images In The Media Historically Promote Racism

Negative images of African-Americans have been part of the American media and entertainment scene for more than 150 years.  From the earliest minstrel shows in the 1820s to the Disney cartoons depicting African-Americans negatively, these images have shaped the psychology of the way Americans view race in the United States (Riggs, 1986).  These caricatures have fulfilled the consequences of social marking because they reinforce status and differences based on the color of someone’s skin (Thomas).  By exaggerating the images, illustrations, drawings and impersonations, actions directed toward another group are justified through such techniques as making the people look similar to animals and in many cases biologically inferior. Sadly, these icons shape public policy and black stereotypes while simultaneously infiltrating the psychological construction of identity that blacks and whites have of themselves, and of each other.

In a land founded on equality, America coped with the inequality of slavery through the use of the caricatures (Riggs).  Before the American Civil War, minstrel shows were performed by white actors in blackface and they danced, played music, did skits and sang songs.  These shows were extremely popular, but they portrayed Blacks as lazy, buffoonish, happy-go-lucky and sometimes superstitious (Riggs).  These degrading stereotypes were propagated all over the United States and became very popular, creating a substantial base upon which to base rationale for slavery.  They explained that African-Americans required close supervision and were child-like.  These stereotypes even went so far as to explain that African-Americans were an inferior race and had been properly domesticated from their savage ways (in Africa), but that without constant supervision by whites, they could easily revert to their primitive ways.  This psychologically enforced the image of the “happy darkie in his place” (Riggs).  The first stereotype to come about at this time was the Sambo caricature.  He was a simple, docile, laughing black man. He had a love for food and for song, had a child-like contentment and personified the satisfaction of the black man being subservient to the white man.

Another caricature of the time was the Zip Coon/Urban Coon, an urban dandy from the North. He wore a suit and tried his best to assimilate to the social practices of white society, but miserably failed. Antebellum, the Zip Coon was portrayed as a free black, but was also considered slow and lazy.  Post-slavery, the he was portrayed as the Urban Coon, someone who puts on airs.  Unlike the Sambo and the Mammy caricature, the Urban and Zip Coons did not know their places (Riggs).  These caricatures “thought” they were as smart as whites, but were shown to be unable to compete intellectually with white counterparts.  From a psychological perspective, this juxtaposition of Sambo and the Coon went on to promote a multi-dimensional notion of how incompetent and inferior that blacks were in the context of white society.  Some blacks even began to believe the images and reinforce the stereotypes unintentionally through actions or thoughts.  If a black man was interested in becoming an actor, his only recourse was the resign himself to some of these stereotypical roles. This psychological propaganda of inferiority was detrimental to the ability of blacks to find an equal place in society after slavery (Riggs).

Then, there was the ever famous caricature of Mammy. She was overweight and happy to serve the mistress or the master as her life calling.  She was docile, loyal and protective of the white household and usually managed the blacks that worked outside the home. The Mammy stereotype sees the value in a society that was based on slavery and fiercely protected it. She represents the total opposite of a white woman and a sexual being.  She does the protecting instead of being protected and is often times shown beating her children or husband instead of her husband beating her and her children (Riggs).  Her subservience to her white master, but not to her husband reinforced the notion that the African-American was completely ill-equipped for this “civil” society and that their ways were backward and uncouth. The Mammy caricature was popular in everything from Hollywood films to household products.

After slavery was outlawed, it became necessary to change the image of blacks in white society.  White northerners were becoming frustrated with blacks competing for employment opportunities and the stereotype images shifted (Riggs).  The image of the Brute or the Savage was the next image to come onto the America media scene.  The Brute was portrayed as very aggressive, animalistic and unable to control his desire for women.  He chased white virgins and raped them, was very primitive and usually lurked around in the dark.  He was uncontrollable, violent and brutal.  This image gave whites a justification for lynching and hate crimes.  This stereotype was incredibly damaging to black men because it almost immediately made them a suspect of violence based simply upon the color of their skin.

In the 21st century, these images are still with us today and unconsciously shape everyone’s views of African-Americans.  Two modern examples of black stereotypes being perpetuated in the media are Tyler Perry’s character Madea and Tracy Morgan.  Madea is a modern form of the Mammy caricature that is overweight, desexualized, motherly and loyal to her family. She has a sharp tongue and sometimes violent outbursts, but remains a leader figure. Another character that perpetuates the stereotypes that have been discussed Tracy Morgan.  Specifically, his character in the television show, 30 Rock, is an example of the Sambo stereotype.  He is shown to be very child-like, docile and uneducated. He personifies some of the Zip/Urban Coon characteristics as well in that he is unable to live up to the social abilities of the whites on the television show. When he tries to imitate them, he often comes off as senseless and confused.  He is constantly obsessed with trivial matters, material objects and fame.

The contemporary forms of these black caricatures contribute to modern forms of racism today because they uphold many of the white, protestant values that encourage white privilege.  For example, John McConahay’s concept of modern racism can lead people to believe that blacks are getting more than they deserve. Since the caricatures have been changing over time and have gotten “better” in terms of the outright, explicit racism, this can even lead some to believe that racism is a thing of the past.  David Sears talks about symbolic racism and explains that this is a situation in which certain people think they are not racist, but that racism does exist. These images of blacks have lead the public to trust the media in their portrayal of reality. For example, the many people equate the face of poverty with people of color and that is not always the reality.  It leads to beliefs such as: all blacks are in poverty and somehow less deserving than whites. It can also lead to the belief among modern and symbolic racists that if you work hard, you will have success (i.e. white people are immune from poverty because of their worth ethic).

For liberals, these concepts can manifest themselves as racial ambivalence, a concept described by Irwin Katz.  In this sense, pro- and anti- black attitudes are activated as a result of priming.  In this type of racism, there is rarely any room for average blacks, only the outstanding and the underachieving.  People who are adverse racists, a term explained by Gaertner and Dovidio, will generally tend to be liberals and sympathize with victims of past injustice.  However, these same people will explain away behavior that is racist with justifications (usually based on the stereotypical media images).  Lastly, these types of images can manifest themselves in compunction theory, a term coined by Patricia Devine.  This theory centers itself around the idea of white guilt. Self-awareness controls the automatic process of using a stereotype.  It is an internal struggle characterized by behavior contradicting your values.  It is with these individuals that the most hope lies in eliminating racism because they are the most willing to change their activation and application of stereotypes.


Jones, Melinda. 2002.  Social Psychology of Prejudice.  Pearson Education: New Jersey.

Riggs, Marlon. 1986. Ethnic notions.  Watched in class on 1/26/12.

Thomas, Kecia.  2012.  Oral lecture in class. Lecture dates: 1/17, 1/19, 1/24 and 1/31 of 2012.

Thomas, Kecia. 2012.  Social marking [word document on ELC].  Retrieved on 1/31/12.

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