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From ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Fistfight:’ How the Media Stereotypes Black Men

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We are introduced to stereotypes at a very young age, whether we act on those stereotypes or not. We contract these stereotypes from our families, through our education, from our friends and, now more than ever, through the media.

These stereotypes lead to common misconceptions, such as the belief of that most black men are criminals. An early representation of this misconception of men of color in the media dates back to the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot.

The 1906 Race Riot in Atlanta.
The 1906 Race Riot in Atlanta.
White man playing black through the use of "black face" in the 1915 film "Birth of a Nation."
White man playing black through the use of “black face” in the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.”

The riot started when multiple black men were falsely accused of the rapes and murders of various white women. Mobs of white men poured through the black neighborhoods harming everyone in sight. Twenty six people were killed and hundreds were harmed. Prejudice created by the newspaper articles consumed the rioters.

Stereotypes render black men criminals as early as their youth. From the age of 10, studies show that black children are dehumanized and less likely to be considered innocent compared to other children their same age. Disabled black children are affected by this misconception. 21 percent of students with disabilities are black, but they make up 44 percent of those who are kept in mechanical restraints during school.

A scene from "Fistfight."
A scene from “Fistfight.”

In various forms of entertainment, the black male characters are often portrayed as more aggressive. For example, in the movie “Fist Fight” (rated R, released Feb. 17), Ice Cube’s character is shown instigating a fight between himself and a fellow white male faculty member at the high school where they work. While Ice Cube is depicted as more serious and hostile, his white co-worker is shown as more naive and weak.

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The movie poster for "Get Hard."
The movie poster for “Get Hard.”

Get Hard is another example of a movie portraying black men in a dangerous way. In the movie, Will Ferrell (white, rich guy) engages Kevin Hart, a black man, to help prepare him to survive in prison. Ferrell’s character makes the assumption because Hart is a black man. The constant portrayal of black men as angry and belligerent is part of what leads people to generalizing these traits among all black men.

Evidence shows a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.

Solutions to this problem need to be found, because while people may be depicting black men in this way on purpose, many others could be doing it subconsciously. In order to fix this consistent flaw, news reporters, journalists, movie producers/writers, etc. should take racial awareness classes as part of their job requirements. As they take these classes, racial bias could potentially become less prevalent in their own thinking, which then prevents it from showing in the media they create. The Atlanta-based CNN is a company that currently uses one of these programs.

Zola, 13, attends Inman Middle School and enjoys participating in activism.

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