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A Social Cognitive Approach to Studying Racial Stereotyping in the Mass Media

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A Social Cognitive Approach to Studying Racial Stereotyping in the Mass Media

A Social Cognitive Approach to Studying Racial

Stereotyping in the Mass Media

Travis L. Dixon, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies Faculty Associate, Institute for

Social Research, The University of Michigan

Although there have been examples of counter-stereotypical programming, such as The

Cosby Show, it can reasonably be argued that television still frequently portrays Blacks in a

stereotypical manner (Dates & Barlow, 1990; Evuleocha & Ugbah, 1989; Graves, 1993).

Dates and Barlow (1990), for example, have reported that Blacks are often portrayed as less

competent than Whites and have less "serious" roles than their White counterparts. Critics

argue that these stereotypes can have the effect of communicating misinformation about

Blacks. This misinformation is then used by Whites to make social judgments about African

Americans (Graves, 1993).

Four primary stereotypes of African Americans have pervaded the airwaves of both television

and film since their conception. The first is the "mammy" who represents a good wholesome

caretaker of Whites, yet a mean and insensitive presence in her own family life. The second

is the "coon", who represents Black ineptness at living successfully in White society. The

third is the "Tom", who is an apologist for slavery. The final is the "Buck", who represents the

violent and uncontrollable Black. According to several scholars, these stereotypes have a

long history and are part of a social hierarchy which denigrates Blacks in American society

(Bogle, 1990; Seiter, 1986).

Documenting the Media Stereotypes

Although critical and cultural studies researchers have discussed the role of stereotyping

from a qualitative perspective (Seiter, 1986), it is important to review the empirical

documentation of Black media portrayals in content analyses. Doing this serves two

purposes. First, one can gain an understanding of what depictions of African Americans

actually exist on television. Second, one can gain an understanding of how often such

depictions are found on television. The results of content analyses contain a count or

frequency of the number of times a particular image is produced on television. In addition,

content analyses rely on sampling procedures that allow the researcher to accurately

generalize to the population of television programs that feature African Americans. Below

the studies which document the presence of these stereotypes on entertainment

programming are examined. Following this, studies which examine the role of news and

reality programming in perpetuating stereotypes are reviewed.

Black Stereotypes in Entertainment Programming

There are only a handful of studies I could locate that content analyzed racial stereotypes on

entertainment television. Although few in number, these past studies by mass media

scholars offer some insight into the nature and frequency of Black depictions on television.

One of the landmark studies was conducted by Lemon (1977) who performed a content

analysis on two-person interactions between Blacks and Whites to determine whether one

racial group dominates or if the groups interact as equals. In addition, she investigated

whether race dominance patterns were related to several program and character variables.

A Social Cognitive Approach to Media Stereotypes 2

Lemon (1977) found that Blacks had more dominant portrayals

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