Volume 21, Number 1

October 1999

Mass Media and Racism
by Stephen Balkaran

Mass media have played and will continue to play a crucial role in the way white Americans perceive African-Americans. As a result of the overwhelming media focus on crime, drug use, gang violence, and other forms of anti-social behavior among African-Americans, the media have fostered a distorted and pernicious public perception of African-Americans. 1

The history of African-Americans is a centuries old struggle against oppression and discrimination. The media have played a key role in perpetuating the effects of this historical oppression and in contributing to African-Americans' continuing status as second-class citizens. As a result, white America has suffered from a deep uncertainty as to who African-Americans really are. Despite this racial divide, something indisputably American about African-Americans has raised doubts about the white man's value system. Indeed, it has also aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black. 2


Before attempting to understand racism and mass media, one must understand the history of racism. Race has become an institutional part of American society. From the Founding on, race has played an integral part in shaping the American consciousness. David Goldberg's Racist Culture argues that racial discourse may be interpreted as aversive, academic, scientific, legalistic, bureaucratic, economic, cultural, linguistic, religion, mythical, or ideological. 3 He also stresses that racialized discourse and racist expressions towards African-American have been widespread. Race matters exist in different places and at different times under widely varying conditions.

American race relations provides a case study in Marxist class theory. Marx argued that society has two classes: the exploited or working class, and the exploiters or owners of the means of production. He further stressed that one class will ultimately overpower the other using any necessary means. Looking at American society we can clearly see the development of the two class system. There were slave owners and slaves, and racism served as a means to overpower the exploited class.

Segmentation Theory

In the 1980's, Michael Reich developed the Segmentation Theory or the Divide and Rule, which attempted to explain racism from an economic point of view. In this theory, Reich proposes that the ultimate goal in society is to maximize profits. As a result, the exploiters will attempt to use any means to: (1) suppress higher wages among the exploited class, (2) weaken the bargaining power of the working class, often by attempting to split it along racial lines, (3) promote prejudices, (4) segregate the black community, (5) ensure that the elite benefit from the creation of stereotypes and racial prejudices against the black community.

Reich argues that the major corporations in the U.S. (e.g. Time Warner, Coca Cola, General Motors, etc.) all have at least one member on each other's corporate boards of directors. As a result, it is in the interest of these members to maximize profits while employing the above devices. The mere fact of these corporate executives' sharing economic corporate power, combined with the quest for economic profit has now paved the way for economic discrimination. But the question still remains, is the media one of the tools used to promote racism? Does the elite use the media to ensure profits are maximized by corporations?

The U.S. Media And Racism

Media have divided the working class and stereotyped young African-American males as gangsters or drug dealers. As a result of such treatment, the media have crushed youths' prospects for future employment and advancement. The media have focused on the negative aspects of the black community (e.g. engaging in drug use, criminal activity, welfare abuse) while maintaining the cycle of poverty that the elite wants.

There are no universally accepted and recorded codes or rules, which apply to journalists in news selection and production. The media have devoted too much time and space to "enumerating the wounded" and too little time to describing the background problems of African-Americans. 4 What is not a crisis is not usually reported and what is not or cannot be made visual is often not televised. The news media respond quickly and with keen interest to the conflicts and controversies of racial stories. For the most part, they disregard the problems that seep beneath the surface until they erupt in the hot steam that is the "live" news story.

The Riots

The media have not studied important events in the African-American community today. Issues such as urbanization, education, poverty, and other elements have a significant bearing on positions of the black community. A good example of this is the media portrayal of the Los Angeles riot in 1992. What we witnessed in Los Angeles was the consequence of a lethal linkage of economic decline, cultural decay, and political lethargy in American life.

Race was the visible catalyst, not the underlying cause, as media portrayed it to be. 5 The portrayal of this individual event encouraged the perception that the black community was solely responsible for the riots and disturbances. According to reports, of those arrested, only 36% were black and of those arrested, more than a third had full-time jobs and most had no political affiliation. 6 Some 60% of the rioters and looters were made up of Hispanics and whites. Yet the media did not report this underlying fact. The media portrayal of this event along with other race riots has again inflicted negative charges and scorn on black awareness. Race riots in Miami in 1980 were similar to the later Los Angeles riots. Here the media also refused to search for the underlying cause behind the protest choosing instead only to depict African-American males engaged in violence and destruction. The underlying factors behind these problems were never researched or explained in prior stories.

The Rodney King Story

The defense put on by the four white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King in 1991 is telling. They claimed that they were scared and felt they might have been attacked or harmed, a legitimate excuse in the white American society. Their "fear" is a manifestation of a deep-rooted media bias that anything black is bad. This media stereotype of bad guys wearing black or that anything that is black is evil has been fostered for decades--e.g., the fact that the bad guy always wore the black in Westerns, and the movie The Birth of a Nation. This media bias has also been illustrated in the Susan Smith case. Smith was the South Carolina woman who made headlines when she claimed that a black male kidnapped her two young children. It turned out that Smith herself had killed them. However, the finger-pointing that her accusations set off are indicative of the media's reflexive need to blame blacks for social ills. This same reflex can also seen in the case of Charles Stuart in Boston who killed his wife and also blamed it on a black man. The media have taken a step further in Hollywood. Here, the portrayal of young African-American males (involved in gangs and other deviant acts of violence) has become a multi-million dollar industry. American society has now accepted these stereotypes which the film media have ascribed to the black community. Films such as Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society have become multi-million dollar success stories with criminal portrayals of young blacks. This portrayal, over time, has fostered false beliefs in white America regarding the way we perceive and view blacks. What the media refuse to acknowledge is that the vast majority of blacks are employed, attend school, and are not involved in gangs or other criminal activities. It is now quite common for young African-American males to be stopped and questioned by cops for any misfits. The profit motive behind continuing this stereotype is a fact. One can only conclude that Michael Reich's Segmentation Theory might be right. It is in the interest of the elite to use media to demean one class by using racial stereotype in order to maximize their profits.

The U.S. News, Media and Race

Clearly, the economic structure of the American news media and the local media make them subject to pressures from powerful interest groups. In 1967, the Kerner Report attacked the mass media for their inadequate handling of day-to-day coverage of racial events. The Report charged the media with failing to properly communicate about race to the majority of their audience. That is, white America needed to hear more about the actual conditions and feelings of African-Americans in the U.S. Only when events are associated with concern of the "white public" do they become newsworthy. Given the situation in America where the major news media have predominantly white reporters and serve a mainly white audience, it follows that the "public" which dictates newsworthy events is a white public. The day to day tensions of black existence and exploitation, which are crucial concerns of the black community, are not primary concerns of the white public. Only the symptoms of these conditions, such as freedom rides and social disturbances, impinge upon whites. Hence, it is only such "events" which become newsworthy in a white press.

One of the main reasons for the inadequate coverage of the underlying causes of racial stereotypes in the U.S. is that the condition of blacks itself is not a matter of high interest to the white majority. Their interest in black America is focused upon situations in which their imagined fear becomes a real problem. Events like boycotts, pickets, civil rights demonstrations, and particularly racial violence mark the point at which black activity impinges on white concerns. It is not surprising that the white-oriented media seek to satisfy the needs of their white audience and reflect this pattern of attention to these selected events.

Research has disclosed that most serious crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, and assault) in inner cities are committed by a very small proportion of African-American youth, some 8% by estimates. 7 Yet the tendency to characterize all African-American males as criminals continues in our society. It is now common for law officers to stop young black males and to harass them as a result of this stereotype. The negative stereotype has continued to affect the black community, as well as their prospects for employment and advancement. All this has been destroyed and, as a end result, it has contributed to high unemployment within the African-American community.

Some Selected Statistics

What the media refuse to acknowledge is the fact that between 1967 and 1990, the percentage of black families with incomes of a least $50,000 more than doubled from 7 to 15 percent. The median income of African-American families in which both husband and wife worked rose from $28,700 in 1967 to $40,038 in 1990, an increase of more than 40 percent. By comparison, the median of white family incomes with two wage earners increased 17 percent during this period, from $40,040 to $47,247. 8

Although there are significant variations in school dropout rates from community to community, nationally the dropout rates for both blacks and whites have decreased since the 1970's. The proportion of African-American high school dropouts fell from 24 to 13 percent from 1972 to 1991. When family income and other background differences are taken into account, African-American youths are no more likely than whites to drop out of school. For many African-American youths, staying in school has not improved their prospects for full- or part-time employment. In fact, unemployment among this group remains at more than twice the rate for white youths. 9 The consequence of racially biased coverage is to maintain racist stereotypes in popular culture and to lead us towards an increasingly dysfunctional society. Given that the news media are staffed and controlled almost exclusively by whites, it follows that the media-reinforced popular consensus is that of the predominant sub-culture. The dysfunctional aspect of this bias emerges when the realistic concerns of African-Americans are dismissed as irrelevant or threatening to the majority population.


The media have and will continue to portray a self-serving negative stereotype of the African-American community. The societal and economic factors of racism have become more than just a bias. They are also a profitable industry, in which the elite will continue to suppress the lower class in order to maximize profits. According to Harvard professor Cornell West, 1 percent of the elite holds some 48 percent of America's wealth. This means that media, racism, and stereotypes will continue to be employed so that those elite can be sure of their continuing economic stability.


Thanks to Ronald Taylor Ph.D., Director of the Institute for African American Studies and Professor of Sociology, Darryl McMiller, Ph.D. Professor of Political Science, and Rose Lovelace, Program Coordinator of the IAAS at the University of Connecticut for their help in researching and documenting this paper.

1 Ronald L. Taylor, "The Harm Wrought by Racial Stereotype," Hartford Courant, 19 March 1995, D1.

2 Ralph Ellison, What America Would be like without Blacks. (Preager Press, 1970), 4.

3 David Goldberg, Racist Culture (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 42.

4 Paul G. Hartmann, Racism and the Media (Rowman & Littlefield Press, 1974),147.

5 Cornell West, Race Matters (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 74.

6 Ibid., 3.

7 Ronald L. Taylor, "The Harm Wrought by Racial Stereotype," Hartford Courant, 19 March 1995, D4.

8 Ibid., D4.

9 Ibid., D4.

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