| Sherri Burr
Dickason Professor of Law
University of New Mexico School of Law
Excerpted from: Sherri Burr, Television and Societal
Effects: an Analysis of Media Images of African-Americans in Historical
Context, 4 Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 159-181, 171-181 (Spring
Why do we care about television images and the economic forces that
produce them? Television images have a pervasive effect on society.
Because network television is an audiovisual medium that is piped free
into ninety-nine percent of American homes, it is one of the most
important vehicles for depicting cultural images to our population.
A. Foreign Perceptions
Cultural images can be either positive or negative. While traveling
in Montana during the summer of 1997, I met a Dutch couple visiting the
United States for the first time. Before boarding their plane, their
friends advised them to be wary of images of Americans on television.
"They don't look like the people on Melrose Place," they were
told. "Americans are all fat." While it is true that over
fifty percent of all Americans are overweight and twenty-five percent
are obese, the image of an overweight society is not projected on
television. Rather, television tends to depict images of very thin
individuals such as the character Ally McBeal.
When the television images of African-Americans are contrasted with
reality, African-Americans are arguably portrayed more negatively on
television than in reality. Watching television could lead viewers to
believe that all African- Americans may be as uneducated or as silly as
Amos 'n' Andy, or crooks and drug dealers as depicted in Hill Street
Blues and Law and Order. Further, because television shows created in
the United States are broadcast all over the world, foreigners who see
the images of African-Americans on television may believe that this
represents African- Americans as a people. For example, cab drivers in
New York City and Washington, D.C., many of who are recent immigrants,
are reluctant to pick up African-Americans.
In November 1999, the images of African-Americans took center stage
over a dispute with New York City taxi drivers who refused to pick up
African- Americans, particularly men, even some who were famous. Movie
star Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon fame, went public about his failure
to get a cab for several hours in New York City. In a press conference,
Glover described the number of New York City cabs that passed him, his
daughter, and her friend. He also noted that the cab that eventually
picked them up refused to let him sit in the front seat, despite his
After his press conference, New York Mayor Rudi Guiliani announced a
crackdown, indicating that cab drivers would face losing their licenses
for failing to pick-up African-Americans. Journalists interviewed cab
drivers, who talked about Blacks as violent, poor people who would
either try to rob them, would want to be taken to dangerous
neighborhoods, or would not have the fare. Given that these men were
often born outside the United States, how did they develop these images
of African- Americans, a people with whom they had little or no personal
experience before coming to this country? The probable answer:
television. After decades of negative portrayals of African-Americans,
the perceptions of Blacks as violent, uneducated, lazy people have been
put forth for foreigners to consume through their television screens.
B. U.S. Children React to Television Images
Within the United States, even children perceive these images as
negative stereotypes. In a 1998 study conducted on behalf of Children
Now, a nonprofit children's advocacy group, interviewers asked twelve
hundred American children how often and in what roles do they see their
race depicted on television. The results were revealing. Children more
often associate positive qualities such as financial and academic
success, leadership, and intelligence with White characters, and
negative qualities such as lawbreaking, financial hardship, laziness,
and goofy behavior with minority characters.
When children were asked about positive qualities, 58% of the
children said that they see Whites on television as having a lot of
money. Only 8% perceived minority characters as having a lot of money.
As for negative qualities, 6% reported seeing White characters breaking
the law or the rules compared with 47% of minority characters.
When asked how often they see their race on television, 71% of White
children said they see their race depicted very often, compared to only
42% of African- Americans and 22% of Hispanic-Americans. As for who
plays the boss, 71% of all children said someone who is White usually
plays the role of boss, while 59% said Blacks typically play the
criminal. "'You always see black people doing drugs and carrying
around drugs, shooting people and stealing things,' one white girl
said." Thus, after six decades of African-Americans on television,
even children do not perceive this group as being presented in a
Children Now conducted another study, called Fall Colors: How Diverse
is the 1999-2000 TV Season's Prime Time Line-Up? after the controversy
in the fall of 1999 over the lack of minority characters on network
television. This study analyzed the level of cast diversity on
ninety-two prime-time network drama and comedy shows, and was
"commissioned in part to provide networks with information
regarding a quantification of their usage of minorities in prime-time
casts." The findings indicated that the vast majority of characters
on network series were White, and while there was a "visible
African American presence" on these shows, other racial and ethnic
minorities were underrepresented.
Furthermore, of the minority characters portrayed on these shows,
very few were main cast members. According to Lois Salisbury, president
of Children Now, "Any way you carve it, the more central a
character is to a program, the more likely he or she is white."
Thus, while the networks seem to have attempted to include some
African-Americans, they have not gone far enough. As Salisbury stated,
"Children in America tell us that being included in TV is a major
signal of acceptance, respect and recognition. The absence of cultural
images and characters that reflect them, conversely, is disturbing to
kids. It affects their aspirations." . .