Black media images as a perceived threat to African American ethnic identity: coping responses, perceived public perception, and attitudes towards affirmative action.

Author:Fujioka, Yuki
Position:Brief Article

Recent research has suggested that minority audiences in the United States may exhibit a pattern of media literacy, including media use and responses to media messages, that is distinct from their White counterparts. In general, minority members are more frequent media users than Whites (e.g., Albarran & Umphrey, 1993; Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999), they are more likely to consider the content of the media as real (Greenberg & Brand, 1994), and they are more critical audiences when evaluating how the media present in-group members (Davis & Gandy, 1999; McAneny, 1994). In comparison to the White majority, these differences may relate to minority audiences' ethnic identity (Allen, 2001; Davis & Gandy, 1999). Davis and Gandy, for example, suggested that African Americans have developed and use strategies in dealing with biased media images of Blacks so that they can protect themselves from possible negative influence.

This poses an interesting question about media effects and public opinion research on racial policies. Recent research has revealed that minority images conveyed via the media contribute to public opinions on racial policies (e.g., Pan & Kosicki, 1996; Sniderman, Brody, & Tetlock, 1991; Tan, Fujioka, & Tan, 2000). Tan et al., for example, suggested that negative media portrayals of African Americans (perceived by White viewers) were related to White viewers' negative perceptions of Blacks in general, which in turn led to their opposition to affirmative action. Negative minority images have been prevalent in the mainstream media (e.g., Entman & Rojecki, 2000), yet neither minority responses to these images nor the influence of these images on minority decisions for affirmative action has yet been systematically addressed.

Bobo (1998) stated that public opinion research on affirmative action has heavily focused on Whites' views, yet beliefs of racial minority members should be addressed because both perspectives must play a role in developing racial policies. Similarly, although media effects research on racial policies has largely relied on Caucasian data, responses of ethnic minorities must be examined because both Whites' and minority members' racial opinions are formed in a mediated racial environment. The purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between minority media portrayals and minority respondents' decision making for affirmative action. The study specifically asks (a) how Black respondents perceive media presentation of in-group members, and (b) how these perceived images are related to Blacks' opinions on affirmative action. It gives special attention to Black respondents' ethnic identity and proposes that media presentation of Blacks may trigger African American respondents' ethnic identity, which is related to their perceptions of public attitudes towards Blacks and endorsement of affirmative action. The study utilizes survey data to examine the proposed association among key variables that will be discussed later.

Literature Review

Ethnic Identity and Mediated Information

Ethnic identity is a group-based identity formed and developed through a variety of socialization processes, including both personal experiences (e.g., interaction with family and community) and mediated experiences (Allen, 1993, 2001; Berry & Mitchell-Kernan, 1982; Gecas, 1992). People learn the meanings of the self and salient identities via reflected appraisals--the appraisals and responses of others about the self. In comparison to family and friends who are identified as "significant" others, the media have been referred to as "generalized" others that present societal expectations and views about the members of the society (Gecas, 1992). Similarly, Berry and Mitchell-Kernan pointed out that mainstream television informs us of where each ethnic group stands in the social structure and presents "societal attitudes" toward minority members.

Allen (2001) suggested that, for African Americans, mainstream media as well as the Black-oriented (ethnic) media serve as one of the influential sources of information about in-group through which African American concepts and identity are developed and negotiated. In general, the ethnic, not the mainstream, media foster and embrace Black ethnic socialization. Although many have criticized distasteful treatment of Blacks presented in the mainstream media and warned of their possible aversive influence on Black self-concepts and identity formation, recent empirical research has indicated mixed support for this claim (e.g., Allen, 2001; Stroman, 1986; Tan & Tan, 1979). Scholars point out that Blacks' ethnic identity is indeed a product of Black socialization processes, yet it is also a way to cope with aversive racial experiences (Davis & Gandy, 1999). Davis and Gandy, for example, asserted that Black identity becomes salient when Black audience members confront distasteful media presentations of Blacks, which in turn heightens their criticism of Black media images. The importance of Black identity in relation to media presentations of Black images can be understood in a framework of social identity and self-categorization.

Social Identity and Self-Categorization Theories

According to Tajfel and Turner (1986), social identity refers to a group-based identity motivating people to perceive their own group favorably and distinctively from other out-groups. Social identity theory claims that (a) the group memberships people hold contribute to their group-based (collective) esteem, and (b) positive social identity is derived from a favorable view of the in-group (the group to which people belong) relative to other out-groups. Thus, social group members are motivated to obtain and maintain positive social identity by engaging in intergroup comparisons that help create favorable attitudes and evaluation of their in-group (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). According to the theory, the mechanism of social identity involves the processes of self-categorization and depersonalization. Social identity will be activated as soon as people categorize self and others into a certain social group (self-categorization) and establish a sense of "us" versus "them." Upon self-categorization, people perceive themselves as members of the in-group rather than as unique individuals (depersonalization), which leads people to perceive in-group similarity (similarity between the self and in-group members), yet feel more distance from out-group members (out-group difference). Self-categorization depends on a given social context, yet some social categories such as race and gender are highly salient and can be activated automatically with a subtle cue because of their pervasiveness and frequency of activation (Banaji & Hardin, 1996; Branscombe & Ellemers, 1998; Devine, 1989). Moreover, race is one of the most salient social categories for most members of minority groups (e.g., Branscombe & Ellemers, 1998; Phinney & Alipuria, 1990). For example, Phinney and Alipuria examined the ethnic identity held by college students from four different ethnic backgrounds and found that ethnic minority students considered ethnic identity substantially more important than did White students. Recent research also demonstrated that racial cues presented in the media had little influence on Whites' responses due to the lack of significance Whites put on their ethnicity (Coover, 2001; Mastro, 2003). (1)

It is then highly likely that media presentations of Black images may activate a Black audience's ethnic identity. Once ethnic identity is activated, Black images in the media become "self- (in-group) referencing," and a crucial piece of information for a Black respondent's self. People are sensitive and receptive to self-referencing information given by others because it serves as a basis of self-evaluation and self-regard (Gecas, 1992; Rosenberg, 1976; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). As such, Black media images may draw great attention from Black respondents. As suggested by social identity theory, Black respondents' desires to hold positive views of their in-group may lead them to exhibit several forms of coping responses to Black media images, particularly when they are perceived as "aversive" or "threatening" to Black identity.

Coping Responses to Perceived Threats

Motivational implications of ethnic identity may be contextually determined by the existence of perceived threats (Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002). The threats in an intergroup context can be either realistic (e.g., threats to the physical existence or the economic power of the in-group) or symbolic (e.g., threats to perceived group differences in values and the worldview; Ellemers et al., 2002; Stephan & Stephan, 2000). According to Stephan and Stephan, in-group members feel threatened when (a) perceiving the out-group (Whites) as threatening the distinct way of life and well-being of the in-group (Blacks), (b) seeing negative views and expectations posed by out-groups to in-group members, and (c) anticipating unpleasant outcomes (being prejudiced) during intergroup interaction. When people face these group threats, they may show coping responses to protect in-group identity from possible aversive influence (see Ellemers et al., 2002, for a complete review).

Some of the coping strategies pertaining to this study include (a) asserting stronger group identity (Doosje, Spears, & Ellemers, 2002), (b) engaging in competitive behavior that contributes to the improvement of the in-group's status (e.g., support for affirmative action), and (c) exhibiting defensive reactions (e.g., degrading the credibility of the unfavorable group information; e.g., Branscombe & Wann, 1994). Those who are highly committed to the group exhibit these coping responses more than do the less committed individuals whose responses to the threats are more passive, including decreasing group identification and distancing self from the group (Ellemers et al., 2002).

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