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Racial Stereotypes in the American Community

Abstract

The problem of racial discrimination in the American society is rooted deep in the public consciousness. Disregarding all the measures which were imposed for overcoming the racial stereotypes, the problem of racial discrimination of African Americans still exists. The racial prejudices still can be found in the mass media and the citizens’ daily behavior. Considering the complex character of this problem, it should be viewed from the historical, political, economic, sociological and psychological perspectives for using the knowledge from various fields of knowledge for exploring it. This paper includes the historical overview of the racial discrimination in the American community, analysis of the content and principles of the media and other instances of racial discrimination in daily practices. The major conclusion is that the problem of racial discrimination still exists and need to be solved gradually by educating the population and paying more attention to satisfying the needs of multi-racial community.

Introduction

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the word racism is defined as any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial overview as well as the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races”. There is a casual link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality and other cultural behavioral features, and that some races are innately superior to others (Racism, 2010). Though most people think that the problem of racial discrimination of African Americans is left in the past, the racial stereotypes are still present in the mass media and citizens’ daily behavior.

This paper will examine the historical, political, economic, sociological and psychological aspects of racism against African Americans in the United States to see whether elements of this problem still exist.

The historical overview of the problem of racial discrimination of African Americans

Afro- American slavery began in 1619, when a Dutch ship took 20 Africans to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, to be introduced as slaves. African slavery had a huge contribution in regards to fledging the economy. African enslavement and the transportation of black people to the United States produced a profitable and enduring labor force for the colonists (Stahl, 2009). One of the economic terms for the slave trade was, The Triangle Slave Trade, which was operated in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It was a production of “carrying slaves, cash crops and manufactured goods between West Africa, the Caribbean or American colonies and the European colonial powers” (Stahl, 2009). Essentially, the Caribbean trade would consist of trading their molasses to Europe or New England, which they then would process into rum. They would then sell their rum to West Africa in exchange for slaves and subsequently auction the slaves off to the Caribbean or American colonies. Slaves were sold for 40$ in Africa and sold for approximately 500$- 1000$ in the American colonies (Stahl, 2009). While the American colonies were profiting from the cheap workforce and the exports of their goods to Europe, the traders were, in their turn interested in the sale of the slaves (Stahl, 2009). The type of farming in the American south was also an economic factor favorable for slavery. There were plantation style farms, which contained cotton, tobacco, sugar and coffee crops. African slaves provided a cheap workforce for the farmers, and were attractive for them because of the large profit being made. They supplied more than 605 billion hours of free labor (Stahl, 2009) and helped the growth of the US economy and the agricultural sector in the United States. However, the establishment of slavery would soon enough cause a civil war.

Racially based slavery started in 1680, and since that time a slave has been recognized as not a person but an article of property. According to the legislation of that period, slaves had no legal rights, and therefore could not marry, own property, vote or serve as witnesses. Europeans viewed Africans as an inferior category of humanity, and believed that their purpose in life was to be lifelong slaves to those superior to them. (Becker, 1999)

On July 4th, 1712, the New York slave revolt took place, during which twenty-three slaves rebelled because of their mistreatment. Nine whites were killed, twenty-one slaves were executed, and the vast majority of the participants were either hanged or burnt to death.

In 1775, General George Washington, changed a policy that allowed free blacks to enlist in the army, and as a result, 5,000 blacks joined the military forces. Soon after, the U.S Constitution was adopted in 1787, which predetermined the continuation of the slave trade for the following 20 years. Moreover, in 1793 Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act, which proclaimed that it was a crime to shelter an escaped slave. In 1807, Congress banned the import of African slaves to the United States, however, the law was disregarded in the South (Becker, 1999). Fifty years later, the Supreme Court decided that African Americans were not considered as citizens of the United Sates, and therefore slaves who escaped to a free state still remained slaves.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as President, and this event infuriated southerners due to his support of the abolishment of slavery (African American World: Timeline). The Republican Party believed in anti-slavery, and many southerners were not accepting it. By February 1st, 1861, six states had withdrawn from the Union and created the Confederate States of American, and elected Jefferson Davis as their local president. However, Lincoln announced that his plan was not intended to end slavery where it existed, or to abolish the Fugitive Slave Law. Yet, his statement did not satisfy the Confederacy, and therefore, resulted in the Civil War. As the cause of the War was the controversy as to the abolishment of slavery, in 1862 Lincoln offered an Emancipation Proclamation to the Confederate States to surrender by January 1st, 1863 or their slaves would be freed (African American World: Timeline).

In 1865 at the war’s end, veterans of the Confederate Army founded the first Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee which is also known as the KKK. The reason behind the creation of the Klan was to fight against the policies after the Civil War, because they considered then as unfair and oppressive and wanted “to protect” white Americans from the freed African Americans.

When the Civil War was over in 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which stated that African Americans had equal rights and citizenship with whites (African American World: Timeline). However, in 1896, segregation was more of an issue as blacks acquired new rights and the divide between whites and African Americans in public facilities was initiated, and this would stand for another fifty-eight years (Becker, 1999).

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, 200,000 black soldiers served in the U.S military. They were segregated from whites and were put into different barracks and recreation centers. When World War II was declared, blacks were decided that it might be their chance to gain equal opportunities. More than one million black soldiers served the U.S military, however, they were still segregated from the rest, until 1945.

Although slavery was abolished, the discrimination and judgment against African Americans still existed. Right up until the 1950’s most of the action took place against African American rights. African Americans were gradually starting to gain independence in 1954, when the Supreme Court united to make a law on school desegregation in Topeka, Kansas. Within the period of 1955-1968, the events that occurred were acts of non-violent protests and dealt with the reform movements in the United States, which were intended to prohibit racial discrimination against African Americans. The crises produced many critical situations between activists and government authorities.

One of the many historical events that occurred was in 1955, when a seamstress named Rosa Parks “refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person, triggering a successful, one year long African American boycott of the bus system (African American World, 2002-2005). Rosa tried to initiate African American rights and struggled for racial equality and became a national symbol in the fight for desegregation. Following Rosa Park’s incident, the successful boycott brought the U.S Supreme Court to determine that segregation of Montgomery, Alabama buses was unconstitutional, which then provoked the modern civil rights movement and the launch of Martin Luther King Jr’s calling. In 1963, the march of 200,000 people to Washington, DC was one of the most remembered events throughout African American movements, due to Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech. In the following year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (African American World, 2002-2005), which banned discrimination towards employment practices and public accommodations.

Another achievement was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was due to Martin Luther King Jr’s protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to gain African American voting rights. The result was that, voting rights were restored. Alas, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee due to racial discrimination. He left the rest of the African American community to encourage and to continue in their attempt to gain equal rights (African American World, 2002-2005).

In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed, which banned racial discrimination in applying for a job. Due to this Act, affirmative action came into place. Affirmative action is also known as employment equity in Canada. It is implemented to maximize diversity throughout all levels of society. However, some Americans believe that affirmative action is “reverse discrimination”, which basically means that this action undermines the achievements of minorities, and increases racial tension (Affirmative action, 2001). In 1978, affirmative action was evident when the Supreme Court banned “fixed racial quotas while making admission decisions” in Regents of the University of California (African American World, 2002-2005). However, a California court would introduce Proposition 209, in 1997 outlawing affirmative action programs.

The first attempt for an African American to run for the presidency was in 1984. A man named Jesse Jackson was running for the Democratic Party’s nomination, however, he lost to Michael Dukakis.

In 1991, another Civil Rights Act was passed. It allowed employees to sue their employers if there was to be any job discrimination. Nevertheless, discrimination among this minority group was still not forgotten. In 1992, four white police officers in the district of Los Angeles were caught on videotape beating an African American male, Rodney King. This raised the issue of social inequalities in the black community causing public outrage. The four officers were found innocent, and resulted in started the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Two of the police officers were then found guilty and sent to prison, while the other two were released after the trial.

The biggest accomplishment, however, for this particular racial group, has to be the winning of the 2009 presidential election by Barack Obama, an African American citizen. President Obama stated in his inaugural speech that day, “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath” (Fenner, 2010).

For centuries, white Americans have discriminated and overpowered African Americans, and it resulted in stereotyped behaviors of American citizens. Many sociological aspects of African American racism caused malicious actions. After many overwhelming episodes of discrimination, African Americans were and are presently on a mission to gain their independence, freedom and rights. However, racism against this particular racial group has still not been equalized with the majority groups and researchers claim that this intolerant outlook will continue to exist until one can realize that racism is learned and not natural (Mankiller, 1998). To deliberately remove racism from society is so much as impossible; however diminishing it is more practical, and “the first step to ending racism lies in seeing it clearly” (Mankiller, 1998).

The role of media in the development of racial stereotypes

Throughout the history of slavery, discrimination and inequality of African Americans, one can see that the events had a great impact and turbulence over the black community. In order to examine the extent of discrimination towards this particular group, society’s attitude towards racism needs to be analyzed, in terms of the effect the media has on all individuals. The media has and always will play a crucial role in the way people view the world, nonetheless how people view minority groups such as African Americans (Balkaran, 1999). The question is how important the role of the media in the development and gradual overcoming of the racial prejudices is. Studies show that “the media have played a key role in perpetuating the effects of this historical oppression and in contributing to African American continuing status on second class citizens” (Balkaran, 1999).

Though most people believe that the racial discrimination is left in the past and this problem does not exist any longer, the analysis of the mass media content shows that the racial stereotypes are present in it. The Afro-Americans are rarely invited to the shows, advertizing or film crews and are often depicted as negative characters. “Despite threats of boycotts and negative publicity, prime-time television entertainment remains largely segregated, with the major networks exiling any Black characters to margins of White-dominated shows” (Entman & Rojecki, 2000, 11). The overview of the prime-time commercials showed that only 27 percent of them were integrated and involved both white and black actors (Entman & Rojecki, 2000, 11). By the way, if there are black couples or black children with their parents in the commercial, they do not touch each other and do not express their feelings as opposed to white couples and children with their parents who touch each other in most cases. Though the equal rights of all the citizens of the American society are proclaimed in the legislative acts, the current state of the mass media shows that some of them remain on the paper only. The destiny of the medical series City of Angels with the predominantly black cast is another example of violation of the rights of the multi-racial audience. The series was very popular and top rated among the black spectators but ranked only eighty eight among the non-African Americans’ household and was cancelled in 2000 less than a year after its start. On the one hand, it shows that the white audience did not like the series with predominantly black cast. On the other hand, its cancelation shows that the interests of the African American spectators were ignored. The racial hierarchy and the distorted depiction of Afro-Americans in films and commercials influence the views of the population and continue to support the racial stereotypes.

The newspapers, magazines and even radio stations and TV channels have been historically divided into black and white because they depicted the same events from black or white perspectives. It was especially noticeable during the racial crises, such as Watts and Rodney King uprisings, because then the sales of black newspapers increased significantly (Jacobs, 2000, p. 6). Afro-Americans bought the black newspapers because they wanted to know the truth and the black point of view on the events and compare it to the perspective of the white media, including that of the New York Times or ABC News. The comparison of the depiction of the same events from various perspectives proves that there were significant differences in them. The white newspapers denied the instances of violation of the rights of the Afro-American population, while the black media could even exaggerate some of them. Blank, Dabady, & Citro (2004) noted that the white population is much more favorably depicted in the news reports of the white television channels (p. 176). The mass media became a powerful instrument of struggling for the rights of particular ethnic groups and was used for not only depicting the processes in the society but also for influencing them.

It is hard to overcome the long centuries of racial discrimination in a short period of time. The analysis of the current state and content of American mass media shows that the ideology of racial discrimination is rooted deep in it and cannot be dissolved so easily and quickly. At the same time, the ignorance of the interests of the multi-racial audiences continues to support the established racial hierarchy.

The ways of racial discrimination of Afro-Americans in today’s society

White Americans have taken advantages of the racial prejudices and stereotypes towards African Americans. The negative beliefs towards blacks satisfy and enrich the white American self-esteem. “If blacks are less intelligent, in white’s beliefs, then it follows that whites are more intelligent. If blacks are lazier, whites are hard working. If blacks prefer to live on welfare, then whites would prefer to be self-supporting” (Shipler, 1998). One of important factors which supported the stereotypical actions regarding the black community is the influence of the media on the public consciousness. Within the 1990’s, any source of media, such as advertisements, news broadcasts, or television have depicted African Americans to be gangsters or drug dealers, and always focus on the negative aspects of the black community. As a result, African Americans have had a difficult time in regards to the employment and future advancement (Shipler, 1998)

White Americans think that racial profiling no longer exists or matters in the United States because schools have been integrated, blacks can vote and race-based job and housing discrimination is prohibited by the law. All these events have been publicized and have been major turning points in the history of the black community. However, many of them don’t notice the racial incidents and evidence that aren’t being publicized in education, crime and welfare terms. For instance, in 2003, a high school in Georgia held a prom in which the white students excluded the African American students (Greenblatt, 2008). Today, society is overwhelmed with anger towards other ethnicities and it looks as though we are all battling each other in one way or another in defense of our “own kind”. As studies show, everyone wants to believe that the problem of racism has been solved through a body of laws and acts. However, the racial prejudices have never been overcome entirely and the stereotypes towards African Americans still exist in the American society.

In spite of the fact that racial discrimination against African Americans has been around for many centuries, researchers think that stereotyping might be the problem in reference to the discriminatory action against African Americans. In their daily routine, white people make a lot of decisions, such as choose friends, neighbors, employees, and interlocutors, and all of these decisions are often predetermined with their anti-black stereotypes which are perpetuated in the system of beliefs of the American community. For example, unfair treatment of Afro-Americans is common among the white police officers, especially in today’s society (Feagin, 2005). “African American pedestrians and motorists are much more likely than whites to be stopped, questioned, or searched by the police” (Feagin, 2005). Ironically enough, a ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) study, found that black drivers are responsible for not more than 18 percent of laws violation, however, they are three quarters of all those who are stopped and searched by the police (Feagin, 2005)

With all these stereotypes and assumptions circulating in the media, can one say that the media is racist? In regards to different media sources, they associate “white” with beauty, status and goodness and “black” with undesirable and darkness (Feagin, 2005). Different ethnicities and cultures view and observe these types of assumptions. There is no doubt that some or mainly all can be brainwashed into believing such things. Therefore, it is difficult to argue that the mass media which mostly depict Afro Americans as negative characters are not the only factor which supports the discriminative ideology in the American society.

However, while facing these stereotypes and discriminatory matters on a daily basis, most Afro-Americans suffer from psychological disadvantages, because these labels and corresponding attitude of the community can play a compelling role in the human psyche. The possible consequences of this psychological distress of African Americans may have due to racism is high blood pressure. Researchers examined this correlation in a field study, of 356 African American men and women aged 21 and older, and 197 of those participants were reported to have been stressed because of racism of non-African Americans (Belgrave, n.d). There was also a correlation in which most African Americans experienced hypertension from non-African Americans. (Belgrave, n.d). Racism affects children just as much as adults. Some field studies show that the relations between racism and psychological distress among children are externalizing symptoms such as, anger issues, aggression and fighting, and internalizing symptoms such as, hopelessness and self-concept among African American boys (Belgrave, n.d)

African Americans choose various ways for coping with the distress caused by the racist views of the community. The results of the research show that African Americans “use various coping strategies to deal with racism stressors” (Belgrave, n.d). Some of these strategies include support from family and friends, and “culturally specifics”, such as racial socialization and spirituality. “Cultural specific coping refers to the ways in which members of a particular cultural heritage draw on cultural knowledge to assign meaning to a stressful and to determinate available resources for dealing with the stressors” (Belgrave, n.d). Another coping strategy is racial socialization, where essentially it is a set of behaviors, communications and interactions that are used by parents in order to help their children acknowledge their racial status and “how to cope with being African American in this society” (Belgrave, n.d). It has been proven that, racial socialization is a positive strategy because the outcomes have higher levels in education achievement and positive psychological end results.

Conclusion

Through the historical, political, economical, sociological and psychological perspectives, one can see that racism against African Americans in the United States still seeks to exist. Although racially based slavery originated in the Southern America in the 1600’s, the signs of racial discrimination can still be found in mass media and daily behavior of American citizens. In our society today, many people behave ignorantly and derogatorily towards the color of someone’s skin, hence the slight potentiality of racism being eliminated from our society. The only solution to it is for one to understand the concept of racism, to acknowledge the existing problem of racial discrimination and pay more attention to satisfying the needs of multi-racial community and educating the population.

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