UC Berkeley press release


Media is much to blame for negative stereotypes about African American men, says UC Berkeley journalism professor

by Gretchen Kell

Berkeley -- The negative stereotype than many people have of African American men is caused to a significant degree by the media, according to William Drummond, a University of California at Berkeley journalism professor and co-author of a recent report on the status of the African American male in California.

"News media have taken the lead in equating young African American males with aggressiveness, lawlessness and violence," said Drummond. "Entertainment media have eagerly taken their cue from the journalists."

This false image not only affects race relations, he said, but "creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for African American youngsters, whose limits of achievement can be predetermined for them by suggestions in the media."

Among Drummond's recommendations in the report is the implementation by school districts of curriculum to teach children, beginning in middle school, how to cope with media.

"It should be on par with sex education," he said. "Youngsters should be as aware of the dangers of media as they are of the dangers of smoking and unsafe sex."

The 200-page report, "African American Males: The Struggle for Equality," was prepared by the California Commission on the Status of African American Males, a group set up five years ago by the California State Legislature. This investigation of the plight of the African American male in California was the brainchild of State Sen. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who at the time was a state assemblywoman.

Economic empowerment, education, health, criminal justice, social services and media were chosen as issues to address.

The commission assembled a professional staff to research these topics as they pertained to African American men. Among the staff members was Drummond, chosen to write about race and media. A former Los Angeles Times reporter who was among the first African American reporters to work on a mainstream newspaper in the United States, Drummond has written extensively on this issue and has taught a class about it since 1991.

In his chapter, Drummond said the media seem fixated on a controversial thesis that arose in the 1970s that there is a "black pathology," a fundamental weakness in African American families that can be traced to their experiences as slaves.

"The concept came from social scientists, most of them white, that there is something wrong with the African American family," he said, "that slavery broke families up, and that this weakness in the family manifests itself in negative social behavior.

"Especially with television producers, there is a kind of assumption that anytime you deal with black people you will see some kind of profound problem. It's a convenient enough handle for them."

The most common stereotype about African American men is that they engage in drug abuse in disproportionate numbers, said Drummond.

In the report, Drummond lists statistics from a U.S. Justice Department-sponsored survey that showed only 6 percent of African Americans had used cocaine in their lifetime, and that the great majority of respondents -- 65.5 percent -- had used it fewer than 11 times. Among white respondents, 10.6 percent had used cocaine in their lifetimes, with 62.3 percent of those respondents saying they had used it fewer than 11 times.

"This is not the impression one gets from watching the evening news or even an episode of the television program 'Cops,'" he said.

While it is easy for news crews to find access to inner city neighborhoods to film drug use and drug busts, Drummond said, "no cameras would be allowed into the offices of clerks at the New York

Stock Exchange or in offices of high tech firms in Silicon Valley where drug abuse is every bit as rampant."

Drummond said the news and entertainment stories that people see and hear each day strongly influence their opinions. And California, he added, is one of the most media-saturated societies in the world.

Unfortunately, the slice of life presented by the media about African Americans is very thin and "based on a very, very small, tiny amount of real world experience," he said.

Drummond added that it is rare for African Americans to be in executive positions in television news, and it is executives who decide what stories will be reported. According to the Radio-Television News Directors Association's latest survey, he said, 85 percent of managing editors in the 1996 survey were white and five percent were African American.

When hearing negative stories about African Americans, such as a 1990 report that nearly one-quarter of African American men in their 20s are in jail, in prison or otherwise under the control of the courts through probation or parole, Drummond found that no historical context is given when these statistics are reported.

Ishmael Reed, the Oakland poet and author of "Dirty Laundry," a book about news stereotyping, told Drummond in an interview for the report that, in that particular story, the reporter failed to mention the racism in the criminal justice system that results in harsher treatment for African Americans. The story, said Reed, was distorted as a result.

Viewers rarely are aware of the distortion, said Drummond.

"If you keep telling people a lie," he said, "pretty soon they'll start thinking it's the truth."

African American youth spend more time in front of television than do their white counterparts, said Drummond, because it's an inexpensive means of diversion. But television does not provide them with a satisfying and accurate reflection of the African American in this country.

"They see a litany of people who've done things wrong," he said. "They see very, very few African Americans, particularly males, who are achievers. It's a dangerous tendency for them to think the only way they can achieve or earn enough is to involve themselves in the illegal economy."

A four-year survey that Drummond cites in the report found that most people list athletics, crime and drug abuse when describing the African American man. About a third of all respondents also said the African American male was intellectually inferior.

"It is remarkable," said Drummond, "that African American respondents are almost completely in agreement with the white respondents when it comes to listing the elements of this negative image."

In addition to recommending that children learn about media coverage in school, the California Commission on the Status of African American Males recommended:

o Support for the Civic Journalism Movement, a nationwide movement that makes a priority of attacking prevailing stereotypes of African American males.

o Support for African American media ownership. An effort is underway in Sacramento to create a statewide "alternative" weekly newspaper aimed at minority communities and urban issues.

o Encouragement for education and careers in the media at all levels.

"Medicine, law and business have traditionally been the most prized professions among African Americans," said Drummond. "This must change to include journalism, film and television production, as well as computer sciences. These are the fields that in the future will most profoundly affect how the African American male sees himself and his role in society."

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