The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America

The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America

by Robert M. Entman, Andrew Rojecki

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Living in a segregated society, white Americans learn about African Americans not through personal relationships but through the images the media show them. The Black Image in the White Mind offers the most comprehensive look at the intricate racial patterns in the mass media and how they shape the ambivalent attitudes of Whites toward Blacks.

Using the media, and especially television, as barometers of race relations, Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki explore but then go beyond the treatment of African Americans on network and local news to incisively uncover the messages sent about race by the entertainment industry-from prime-time dramas and sitcoms to commercials and Hollywood movies. While the authors find very little in the media that intentionally promotes racism, they find even less that advances racial harmony. They reveal instead a subtle pattern of images that, while making room for Blacks, implies a racial hierarchy with Whites on top and promotes a sense of difference and conflict. Commercials, for example, feature plenty of Black characters. But unlike Whites, they rarely speak to or touch one another. In prime time, the few Blacks who escape sitcom buffoonery rarely enjoy informal, friendly contact with White colleagues—perhaps reinforcing social distance in real life.

Entman and Rojecki interweave such astute observations with candid interviews of White Americans that make clear how these images of racial difference insinuate themselves into Whites' thinking.

Despite its disturbing readings of television and film, the book's cogent analyses and proposed policy guidelines offer hope that America's powerful mediated racial separation can be successfully bridged.

"Entman and Rojecki look at how television news focuses on black poverty and crime out of proportion to the material reality of black lives, how black 'experts' are only interviewed for 'black-themed' issues and how 'black politics' are distorted in the news, and conclude that, while there are more images of African-Americans on television now than there were years ago, these images often don't reflect a commitment to 'racial comity' or community-building between the races. Thoroughly researched and convincingly argued."—Publishers Weekly

"Drawing on their own research and that of a wide array of other scholars, Entman and Rojecki present a great deal of provocative data showing a general tendency to devalue blacks or force them into stock categories."—Ben Yagoda, New Leader

Winner of the Frank Luther Mott Award for best book in Mass Communication and the Robert E. Lane Award for best book in political psychology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226210773
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/15/2010
Series: Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 340
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Robert M. Entman is a professor in and head of the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University.

Andrew Rojecki is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

The Black Image in the White Mind

Media and Race in America

By Robert M. Entman, Andrew Rojecki

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-21077-3


The Racial Chameleon

Assessing the state of race relations in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, scholars, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens disagree on the extent of the breach between Blacks and Whites. While some argue it has narrowed substantially, others claim it is as wide as ever. There is evidence to support both positions. Material conditions for African Americans have undoubtedly improved since the major legal and political reforms in the 1960s. Yet racial identity remains an important component of social appraisal, and this continues to disadvantage Blacks while benefiting Whites. Though at century's end a few African Americans had crossed over to highly visible acceptance, even veneration, among Whites, most Blacks still lived apart from Whites and lagged seriously behind in income, housing, health, and education.

Beyond the conflicting evidence, we believe that some of the disagreement over the state of racial matters results from new, less apparent forms of differentiation that sustain race as a social marker. These are more difficult to detect in part because they are no longer based on biological understandings of race and the overt stereotypes and caricatures that grew out of them. Since the end of World War II, these have gradually disappeared from public view. Although race clearly remains a strong predictor of life chances, the public face of race is now cloaked in a chameleon-like form, an ever-changing camouflage that obscures its force. The unresolved conflicts over facts and their interpretation, disseminated by the media, result in the kind of ambivalence evident in this exchange between a citizen and President Bill Clinton:

MR. MORGAN: Yes, I do honestly think that there is still discrimination in this country to a point. There are a lot of prejudiced people out there that still remain.... And I think it has been ironed out in our generation.

THE PRESIDENT: Do you think it's because of personal experiences, do you think it's because you've had more direct personal experience with people from different age groups? Or do you think it's because you grew up in a different time where the climate, the legal and the political and the social climate, was different?

MR. MORGAN: I think it was because I grew up in a different time. We grew up watching television. The Cosby show was my favorite show. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: So, therefore, if you worked at a bank and a Black person came in with a check you wouldn't necessarily think it ought to be held because you saw Bill Cosby and he was a good role model? (Laughter.) No, this is important. No, no, this is important.

MR. MORGAN: Yes, I don't think I would give him a hard time. But at the same time, I have my own prejudices, whereas if I'm walking downtown on a street and I see a Black man walking towards me that's not dressed as well, I may be a little bit scared. So, I mean, at the same time I have those prejudices.

THE PRESIDENT: Do you think that's because of television crime shows, or because of your personal experience?

MR. MORGAN: It would have nothing to do with my personal experience. Just from the media, television shows and things that I have heard.

Appropriately enough, this discussion occurred on 3 December 1997 in Akron, Ohio, during the first town meeting of the President's Initiative on Race. Our findings suggest this young man's experience is typical. Like many Whites, he is ambivalent, "a little bit scared" of some Blacks and admiring of others—more on the basis of what he learns from the media than personal experience, understandably so since most Blacks and Whites in the United States continue to live their private lives apart from one another. And even if they increasingly work together, formal, role-structured job contact with isolated individuals does little to modify preexisting feelings among Whites. Racial isolation heightens the importance of the messages Whites receive about Blacks from the mass media, and especially from the most widely consumed source—television. Its constant stream of messages designed to inform, pleasurably distract, and, above all, put targeted audiences in the mood to buy creates two influential roles for television. Along with other media, it is both a barometer of race relations and a potential accelerator either to racial cohesion or to cultural separation and political conflict. Because Whites control mass media organizations, and because Whites' majority status makes their tastes the most influential in audience-maximizing calculations, media productions offer a revealing indicator of the new forms of racial differentiation. Beyond providing a diagnostic tool, a measuring device for the state of race relations, the media also act as a causal agent: they help to shape and reshape the culture.

In the following chapters, building upon a large body of research, we employ close analyses of media content along with interview data to show the subtle way that racial images on television (and to a lesser extent other mass media) reflect and possibly influence Whites' ways of thinking on racial matters. What is most fascinating about the present situation is that media producers have, like the great majority of Americans, rejected the most blatant forms of racial differentiation to a point some critics have derisively described as "political correctness." Yet racial differentiation lives on nonetheless. Its new forms and the methods by which the media sustain them—in large part inadvertently—are the principal subjects of this book.

White Attitudes and the Paradox of Racial Progress

We believe the majority of White Americans experience ambivalent thoughts and feelings about African Americans, a complex mixture of animosity and yearning for racial harmony. The ambivalence emerges, in part, from a paradox of racial progress. Lacking political or economic clout, Blacks long functioned in the mainstream national culture (outside the White-dominated South) largely as quaint symbols of nostalgia and innocence. Blacks' new political assertiveness and power after World War II, and their large-scale emigration from the South, spread White anxiety and resentment throughout the nation, even as it rendered open proclamations of racial inferiority passé. Thus it is possible that old-fashioned racism, wrong as it was on every level, coexisted with rather positive emotions among many Whites. If Blacks couldn't be expected to achieve, if they were naturally inclined to slow-wittedness and laziness, then they could be regarded with paternal fondness, so long as they showed proper deference. Growing beyond the myths of genetic racial hierarchy, the current culture rejects the most overt claims of Black inferiority—and this ironically cultivates White impatience and hostility.

The contrast becomes clear when we compare Hollywood's submissive, jolly Black mammies and uncles of the 1930s or 1940s with the aggressive Black characters in such hit films of the 1990s as Independence Day or Jerry Maguire, or compare beloved jazz maestro Louis Armstrong with rapperslike Tupac Shakur or Snoop Doggy Dog. Deferential behavior on the part of members of the out-group stimulates affectionate condescension among the in-group; assertiveness does not.

At the outset we need to register an important qualification. This book explores the implicit and explicit meanings and images transmitted by the media that reflect and reinforce the attitudes, assumptions, anxieties, and hopes Whites have about themselves and African Americans. We emphasize White perceptions and sentiments not out of White chauvinism, but because that group holds by far the dominant share of cultural, social, economic, and political power in the United States. When Whites exhibit racism, hostility, or misunderstanding toward other groups, they are uniquely able to act on their negative views in ways that harm those groups and their own interests in a just, efficient, and effective national community.

Questions and Evidence for Answers

The specific questions that guide our study include the following: Assuming that much positive change occurred over the second half of the twentieth century, what is the current state of White beliefs, attitudes, and emotions toward Blacks? How do the media influence the culture in which these have emerged? What are the new hidden codes of racial difference and hierarchy? Why, after decades of heightened awareness and vigilance that have expunged the most overt and offensive stereotypes, do media often convey problematic images of African Americans? How can we "read" these new codes—discern the chameleon—and can anything realistically be done to hasten improvements?

In hunting for answers we naturally begin with overt images and plainly spoken statements, but we also look for comparisons, exclusions, classifications, relationships, and boundaries. Others have written insightfully on media, culture, and race. We hope to advance understanding by studying the way images and words supply information and stimuli to audiences, how they set up implied contrasts and critical omissions, and how they selectively frame the world. Mediated information includes not just what media explicitly tell us but how a given message compares with previous ones and with potential material on the same subject. Mediated information is inherently comparative: audiences interpret a narrative or image through filters shaped by other media content and, of course, by direct experience. Measuring only what appears on the screen or page does not offer a comprehensive picture of its nature and potential impacts. It is the totality of presences and absences that constitutes the mediated communication.

For this reason, we look beyond single genres of media content and, unlike most previous studies of mediated racial politics, beyond news. Not only do most people see far more than news (if they see any at all), but television viewers rarely confine themselves to one kind of show, sitcoms for example. They are as likely to watch dramatic programs and one or two news or "infotainment" programs and, despite the handy remote control, certainly cannot avoid the numerous ads—now crafted precisely to keep their clickers at bay. Many also go to movies, especially the big hits that cross-owned television and print outlets do so much to promote.

For these reasons we study a broad range of media to illuminate the current culture of race; to reveal important influences that media may have on this culture; to suggest how much subtle material pertinent to Black-White relations structures all media productions; and therefore to support the need for a new understanding of the political nature and effects of news, entertainment, and advertising, all the more so as accelerating economic competition blurs the lines between these genres. We hope this understanding might help to inform public debate and perhaps promote changes in the practices of those who shape media products—and of those who consume them.

Unlike most research, our study spans a range of fields from critical and cultural studies to political and other social sciences. It attempts to cross lines that normally separate disciplinary orientations and opposed scholarly discourses. We do this because no single method seems satisfactory by itself to do justice to this complex and emotionally freighted topic. Take, for example, the controversy in political science regarding the adequacy of using standardized attitude statements for detecting and measuring racial prejudice. Researchers have over the years developed inventive techniques for getting respondents to say what they really think about racial matters in a time when such candor is socially discouraged. These measures have revealed continuing negative racial attitudes grouped under such rubrics as "racial resentment," "symbolic racism," "modern racism," and "aversive racism." We believe that a broad grasp and analysis of media content, informed by the insights of such scholarship, promises further advances in understanding this unwieldy and troubling problem.

In the end, our goal is the same as those who use survey research exclusively: to outline the elusive shape of what has largely become a private discourse on a sensitive topic. By discourse we simply mean how people understand, think, and talk about something, be it an issue or a category of people. It is of course possible to grasp these ways of thinking by asking people to state their level of agreement or disagreement with a survey item, but the item itself is an economical statement of some common understanding. Despite the prodigious and productive effort to make these summary items accurate and reliable reflections of everyday thinking, they remain volatile. As Schuman et al. show in their comprehensive historical review of racial attitudes (discussed further in chapter 2), survey questions change their meaning over time as common-sense understanding changes. Media content, even of the most fanciful variety, partakes of the same common-sense thinking and thus offers a rich store of the patterns that underlie ways of understanding that often remain undetected until they change and suddenly appear visibly offensive or merely quaint. In this study we propose to raise the grain of these patterns, to enrich our understanding of White racial attitudes, and thereby also to pose new questions.

By revealing the open and covert racial themes in media content—the assumptions or suspicions that permeate American life and shape Whites' hearts and minds—we hope to advance knowledge of mediated communication in ways useful to all concerned. At the same time, we hope this book will add something new to the understanding of race relations more generally.

Discerning the Chameleon

Our findings show that in a variety of ways across the diversity of genres and outlets, the mass media convey impressions that Blacks and Whites occupy different moral universes, that Blacks are somehow fundamentally different from Whites. This is not the only lesson, for the media also convey images of harmony and similarity, and we shall document the complexities and contradictions. But, having only limited personal experience with Blacks, and raised in a culture where race is highly salient and Black persons rest at the bottom of the social hierarchy, Whites may be more likely to remember the negative than the positive in all the unplanned, media-generated impressions. Psychologists have found more generally that people remember negative information most readily. By what they both do and do not convey, the media can stimulate Whites' tendencies to imagine, exaggerate, and misunderstand group differences.

We also find a major difference between the surface and the deeper levels of media content. At the surface, any examination of the media reveals evidence of enormous progress since the days of the widely cited 1968 Kerner Report: greater media visibility for Blacks than ever, even overrepresentation by some measures. Yet at deeper levels, negative images abound. One point of this book is to show how discussions of social and political effects of media, and any resulting policy issues, must be informed by more thorough understanding of media content. We seek to move beyond current, limited understandings of exactly what constitutes the politically influential material in media texts, understandings that distort critical discussions about what makes for "accurate" or "objective" news.

The heart of this book outlines the shape and describes the patterns of the new forms of racial differentiation present in the minds of White Americans and throughout the media. In chapter 2 we first review the recent scholarship on racial attitudes and suggest a model that we believe clarifies Whites' often complicated and conflicted racial sentiments. We emphasize the need to get beyond any simple scheme that categorizes Whites as either racist or not. We then describe a survey and in-depth interviews of Indianapolis residents that illustrate the contradictory nature of White Americans' thinking about Blacks and the part the mass media play in that thinking. The products of the mass media do not fall on the receptive minds of a wholly accepting, ingenuous audience; they interact with personal experience, mainly impersonal, distant contact. As we will show, Whites' attitudes on race and perceptions of Black behavior reveal a necessarily simplified but understandable mode of thinking that arises from the absence of regular, close interaction and from largely hidden but lingering cultural influences. As one would expect, their perceptions and sentiments are particularly responsive to media imagery that reinforces their outlooks.

Chapter 3 explores the national survey data and the scholarship on White racial opinion. It explains the social psychological consequences of limited interpersonal contact with Blacks on White Americans and sets out a cultural framework for interpreting the habits of thought that result. The main argument is that Blacks now occupy a kind of limbo status in White America's thinking, neither fully accepted nor wholly rejected by the dominant culture. The ambiguity of Blacks' situation gives particular relevance and perhaps potency to the images of African Americans in the media.


Excerpted from The Black Image in the White Mind by Robert M. Entman, Andrew Rojecki. Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Tables and Figures
Preface to the Paperback Edition
1. The Racial Chameleon
2. White Racial Attitudes in the Heartland
3. Culture, Media, and the White Mind: The Character of Their Content
4. The Meaning of Blackness in Network News
5. Violence, Stereotypes, and African Americans in the News
6. Benign Neglect in the Poverty of the News
7. Affirming Discord
8. Black Power
9. Prime-Time Television: White and Whiter
10. Advertising Whiteness
11. Race at the Movies
12. Reflecting on the End of Racial Representation
Appendix: Data Tables

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