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