The death of George Floyd has shined a spotlight once again on the bias against black men in the United States. We’re reminded of it every time an unarmed black man or boy is killed by the police, every time a mother trembles with fear when her black son ventures out into the world, and every time we hear about thousands of smaller insults and injustices. The bias is deep-seeded. But what’s fueling it today? The following analysis by Racial Equity Tools, shows how one culprit, the media, presents a picture of black males and how this representation affects not only attitudes toward black men and boys but their actual life chances.

There are many, many forces — material, historical, cultural, and political — that shape and constrict the life chances of black males in the U.S. Some of these are long-standing legacies that may take generations to shift. But in other ways, the social, economic, and symbolic place of African-American men and boys is re-created and reinforced every day. 

In particular, public perceptions and attitudes toward black males not only help to create barriers to advancement within this society, but also make that position seem natural or inevitable. Among the most important mechanisms for maintaining (or changing) these perceptions are the mass media with their significant power to shape popular ideas and attitudes. This study looks at the evidence scholars have gathered and the conclusions they have drawn about how the media present a picture of black males and how this representation affects not only attitudes toward black men and boys but their actual life chances. It also explores whatever guidance the social science research offers for changing media practices and resulting black male outcomes for the better. For the most part, we limit the discussion to “what is known” by social scientists looking at this field — based on experimental or other empirical evidence (as opposed to a cultural criticism approach, for instance), or on a consensus reached by scholars. At certain points throughout the review we offer perspectives based on our own empirical research into the framing of a wide range of social issues. 

The core problem
The review focuses on the core problem as social scientists have described it — a troubling link between media portrayals and lowered life chances for black males. The review breaks this story down into several components.

Distorted patterns of portrayal
A robust body of research documents how the overall presentation of black males in the media is distorted in a variety of ways, relative to the real-world facts. While individual studies tend to focus on a single genre or medium — such as TV fiction shows, magazine advertising, or video games — the research taken as a whole reveals broad patterns, including:

Underrepresentation overall — for instance, as characters in video games; as “talking head” experts called in to offer perspectives and analysis in the news; as computer users in TV commercials; as users of luxury items in print ads; and as “relatable” characters with well developed personal lives (e.g., fathers) in fiction shows and films.

Negative associations exaggerated — particularly criminality, unemployment, and poverty. The idle black male on the street corner is not the “true face” of poverty in America, but he is the dominant one in the world as depicted by the media. 

Positive associations limited — particularly, sports, physical achievement in general, virility, and musicality. While the media’s version of America is populated by some black males intended to inspire, they tend to represent a relatively limited range of qualities to the exclusion of a variety of other everyday virtues. 

The “problem” frame — Due to both distortions and also accurate and sympathetic discussion, black males tend to be overly associated with intractable problems. 

Missing stories — Many important dimensions of black males’ lives, such as historical antecedents of black economic disadvantage and persistence of anti-black male bias, are largely ignored by the media. 

Causal link between media and public attitudes
Naturally, the reason so much attention is devoted to media representations is that the collective image of blacks and black males has important effects. Many researchers discuss how distorted portrayals can be expected to create problematic understandings and attitudes among audiences, including:

  • General antagonism toward black males; 
  • Exaggerated views of, expectations of, and tolerance for race-based socio-economic disparities; 
  • Exaggerated views related to criminality and violence; 
  • Lack of identification with or sympathy for black males; 
  • Reduced attention to structural and other big-picture factors; 
  • Public support for punitive approaches to problems.

Studies show that media images have the greatest impact on perceptions when viewers have less real world experience with the topic; in other words, the “media world” can be mistaken for the real world, unless audiences have sufficient personal experience to counteract its effects.

Even audiences with real-world experience are not immune. Studies show, for instance, that stereotypic images depict black women as contributing to their domestic victimization by their black male partners. Considering these distorted images, it is not surprising that black television viewers, male and female, tend to lose more “social capital” through viewing TV programming — i.e., to trust the community and those around them less in ways that can lead to reduced prosperity and other outcomes.

These black male leaders defy the media’s stereotypes and remind us every day that black men matter:

1. Killer Mike

2. Trevor Noah

3. Michael Che

4. Neil deGrasse Tyson


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