Culture Threat and Media

Spring 2010
Final Research Essays

Article 8 of 12

In this new millennium, it would not be farfetched to conclude that efforts to remove past racial prejudices that unfairly handicapped African Americans, have been predominantly successful. Yet, even with the removal of racial prejudices, researchers have continued to recognize a visible academic achievement gap between middle class African Americans and other middle class races, primarily white Americans. Over the years, researchers such as Harvard University economist Ron Ferguson have conducted studies in middle class and upper class African American communities. These studies have been used as proof to show that demographic characteristics such as poverty and dilapidated environments, are not reasons why middle class African Americans continue to achieve less academically (Fryer 54). More recently, the attempt to decipher the cause of this academic gap has guided researchers toward the concept of stereotype threat. The American Psychological Association defines a stereotype as “[g]eneralizations about a group of people in which the same characteristics are assigned to all members of the group” (Gerrig and Zimbardo). Conjointly, stereotype threat is defined as the “risk of conforming to a negative stereotype of one’s group” (Gerrig and Zimbardo). In other words, a stereotype is some type of assumption held by a group of people in a society, that members of a certain group possess one or more specific characteristics. In due course, stereotype threat arises when a member of the group, that is thought to possess a certain characteristic, begins to feel a need to conform to that characteristic. Chiefly, one must understand that a stereotype may lead to stereotype threat.

As observed by various scholars, including sociologist Kevin Roberts and University of Massachusetts professor Edward Rhymes, there exists a stereotype that African Americans are “anti-intellectual” compared to other races in the United States (Roberts 139). This use of anti-intellectual refers to people who are opposed to attaining knowledge and thinking abstractly. Some scholars have hypothesized that this “anti-intellectual” stereotype is the cause of the threat that is leading to the current academic achievement gap. The general idea is that, middle class African American students are conforming to the previously mentioned “anti-intellectual” stereotype, which as a consequence would lead to a gap in academic achievement. This concept of stereotype threat inevitably leads to an ongoing debate within the social science community regarding the cause of the “anti-intellectual” stereotype. When it comes to this debate, there exist two schools of thought. On one side, there are those who choose to blame the media, whom I will henceforth refer to as media scrutinizers. The media scrutinizers blame the modern media for a one-sided portrayal of African Americans. Opposite the media scrutinizers are those who I will refer to as the, culture prosecutors. The culture prosecutors place the bulk of the blame on an African American culture opposed to white American values. When it comes to this debate, I side with the culture prosecutors and I concur that the current African American culture is primarily the cause of the African American “anti-intellectual” stereotype. In addition, I assert that although African American culture is the source of the “anti- intellectual” stereotype, the media is to blame for its amplification and persistence.

When it comes to this debate one has to keep in mind that fields of study such as sociology and psychology differ from hard sciences such as mathematics or physics in various ways. This difference leads to less of a reliance on objective and computable data and much more dependence on the careful theoretical analysis by professionals regarding society and human behavior. With this in mind, my aim in this paper is to show how the majority of African American activities in modern society are viewed as anti-intellectual. Incidentally, how these anti-intellectual activities can be attributed to the dominant African American culture. This will show that, African American culture, leads to the “anti-intellectual” stereotype. In addition to this claim, I will also show how the mass media, in lieu of causing the stereotype, envelopes, amplifies, and broadcasts the stereotype into society.    

In order to fully comprehend how African American culture is the cause of the “anti-intellectual” stereotype, one must first be able to understand the meaning of culture and its interaction with individuals. Culture is generally defined as the behavior patterns, beliefs, and other products of human work and thought as expressed in a particular community (Houghton Mifflin Company 209). In simpler terms, culture refers to how a group of people differ in behavior, customs, and ideas from another group of people. If culture refers to the characteristics of a group as a whole, then cultural identity refers to how individuals within the group identify with these characteristics.

Like similarly intricate subjects, when it comes to a discussion regarding culture, there lacks an ideal system, free of any imperfections and subjective concerns, to allow researchers to precisely define the culture of a group of people. With this in mind, the majority of scholars use various theories to generally define the dominant culture of a group of people. As I and various other scholars see it, the dominant African American culture is that of involuntary minorities. In his Article, “Acting White”: African American Students and Education, University of Massachusetts professor Edward Rhymes focuses on uncovering widely held misconceptions about African American culture. When defining the dominant African American culture, Rhymes refers to a study conducted by anthropologist John Ogbu on middle-class African American students in Shaker Heights, Ohio in 1999. In the study, Ogbu concluded that middle class African Americans are “involuntary minorities”:

Involuntary minorities are those who did not immigrate to a country by choice. They became minorities through enslavement, colonization or conquest, a status that continues to shape how they are treated by the dominant group and how they perceive and respond to that treatment. Involuntary minorities developed their identity in opposition to the majority group that had oppressed them. As a result, they are often suspicious of societal institutions run by the dominant group, including the schools, believing that the curriculum threatens and denigrates their heritage. (Rhymes)

In other words, “involuntary minorities” refers to a group of people who develop a culture that is antagonistic toward the culture of the group that oppressed them. In my opinion, African Americans befit this classification because they were once an enslaved race oppressed by white Americans. As a result of this of deracination and slavery, African Americans have developed a culture that is both independent and in some cases contradictory to white American culture.

To understand how African American culture has developed adversely to white American culture, one must be able to identify white American cultural values. In his article American Cultural Values, Doctor Gary Weaver attempts to define past and present white American cultural values in order to understand American behavior. In this article, Weaver describes traditional American values such as: risk taking, hard work, individual achievement, and self reliance (Weaver). These values show how, contrary to popular belief, America is not a mixing pot but rather a salad bowl with a dominant culture. Additionally, Weaver describes how in the early years of the United States development some immigrants were able to assimilate into the white American culture. Chiefly, Weaver acknowledges that:

American Indians, Mexican Americans and African Americans could not fit the mold. Regardless of how much they acted like white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, they could not change their skin color or hair texture. Even if they mastered English and mainstream values and behaviors, nonwhites were identifiably different and therefore were easily excluded from the dominant culture. (3)

In summary, as America grew, certain minorities were excluded from the white American majority culture due to racial characteristics. I agree with Doctor Weaver’s acknowledgement and I use it to illustrate some of the differences between a majority group’s culture and an involuntary minority’s culture. As a result of exploitation and exclusion by white Americans from the majority culture, I surmise that African Americans developed a culture that modified some of the traditional white American values such as hard work and individual achievement. The addition of these altered values into the African American culture has led African Americans to pursue activities that are considered by the majority group to be anti-intellectual.

African American endeavors that are considered to be anti-intellectual include a de-emphasis on education and an overemphasis on athletics. When it comes to the de-emphasis of education by African Americans, statistics tell part of the story and social practices tell the rest. In an informative article titled, African Americans Majoring in Science at Predominantly White Universities (A Review of Literature), the authors, Andre Green and George Glasson, attempt to explain modern reasons for the underrepresentation of African Americans in science related fields at predominantly white universities. Green and Glasson exclaim that, “African Americans constitute a little more than 12% of the United States population. However, as recently as 1999 African Americans only comprised 3.4% of persons working in science and engineering related occupations” (1). The authors point is that African Americans make up more than one tenth of the United States population but are greatly underrepresented in vital fields of study. The reason I choose to utilize this statistic is to show how African Americans are underrepresented in the vital fields that are generally presumed to require high levels of intelligence. Although this underrepresentation cannot be directly attributed to the “anti-intellectual” stereotype, it does go toward proving a point. The point being that in this era, racial and demographic characteristics have been minimized, yet African Americans still refrain from entering such intellectually reputable fields of study. This self withholding suggests that the problem is not simply a matter of resource but rather a matter of desire. Just as these statistics hint at a de-emphasis on education in the African American community, so do African American social practices.

In regard to African American social practices that signal a de-emphasis on education, none resonates more than the “acting white” phenomenon. In a study report titled, Acting White: The social price paid by the best and brightest minority students, Harvard economist Roland Fryer attempts to identify, categorize, and explain the inner workings of the “acting white” phenomenon. The report chronologically describes the authors understanding of the “acting white” phenomenon as well as an experiment he conducted in order to showcase the existence of the phenomenon. In the report, Fryer defines the “acting white” as “a set of social interactions in which minority adolescents who get good grades in school enjoy less social popularity than white students who do well academically” (53). In simpler words, the “acting white” phenomenon is when a minority student is ostracized by peers of his own culture for getting good grades because good grades are viewed as a component of white culture. Fryer goes on to describe additional characteristics that are assumed by African Americans to belong white culture. These characteristics include speaking proper English and enrolling in Advanced Placement or honors classes (Fryer 54). These characteristics describe simple activities that a person seeking educational attainment would strive for. As I understand it, the “acting white” phenomenon is simply a result of the involuntary minorities’ culture. In this culture, African Americans have developed values that are divergent from White American values of individual achievement through education. As a result of this deviation, some African Americans socially isolate other African Americans that seek to attain individual academic achievement. This rarely discussed phenomenon leads to not only less educated members in the African American community but also creates a view of African Americans as ignorant.

As a result of the involuntary minority’s complex recognized by anthropologist John Ogbu, African Americans have also developed a culture that overemphasizes athletics. In his article, knocking down the black on black education barrier, author Joseph Brown discusses one of the root problems of poor academic performance by African American children. Brown surmises that there is a lack of motivation toward learning in young African American children (Brown). Furthermore Brown states that in order to motivate young African American children to want to learn, “good black students…must be placed on the same level that black athletes are currently held. The 4.0 student must get as much attention as the 4.4 sprinter” (Brown). To reiterate, there is more admiration in the African American community for athletes than scholars. As I see it, there is an overshadowing of education by sports in the African American community. This overshadowing leads the majority of African American children to stray from education and to pursue roles in more culturally acceptable activities such as sports. As a result of the pursuit of other less academic activities, even less African Americans become highly educated which ultimately creates a view in society of African Americans as a people opposed to education.

The African American cultural de-emphasis on education coupled with the overemphasis on athletics, serve as catalyst for the emergence of the “anti-intellectual” stereotype. The by-product of these African American activities eventually leads to less African Americans having the desire to pursue education. This lack of desire sequentially results in less African Americans in academic institutions and subsequently in a societal view of African Americans being opposed to attaining knowledge. As simple as this sequence is, there are still those out there who choose to disagree.

Opposed to the idea that African American culture is to blame, are the aforementioned, media scrutinizers. The media scrutinizers claim that the mass media is the cause of the “anti-intellectual” stereotype. By definition, media is “an agency by which something is accomplished, conveyed, or transferred” (Houghton Mifflin Company 519). By mass media, the media scrutinizers are referring to the various forms of media, primarily television, through which the majority of people attain information. In a recent article titled, Television Media as a potential Negative Factor in the Racial Identity Development of African American Youth, Psychiatrist Ardis Martin strives to explore how stereotypical images on television and the promotion of racial discrimination may affect youth maturity. Martin states that “most African Americans in TV appear primarily in comedies and rarely in dramas or as main characters” (340). The point that Martin is trying to make is that African Americans continue to play primarily jovial and meager roles on television. This point of view allows the media scrutinizers to argue that although times have changed drastically, portrayals of African Americans as ignorant and un-educated continue in the mass media. Furthermore, they argue that the availability of mass media information has increased as exemplified by the abundance of televisions and other media sources in the modern household and work place. Media scrutinizers claim that the incorporation of persistent negative portrayals in the hastily expanding mass media has led to the assumption that African Americans are against intellectual attainment.

I can understand why the media scrutinizers would argue that the mass media is to blame. Past racism in the mass media could clearly have caused stereotypes in the past and it would take a long time before such negative portrayals could be changed. With that in mind, I contend that the mass media is still just the surface of the cause. As I view it, when it comes to the “anti-intellectual” stereotype, the mass media acts to envelope what is available. In this case, the mass media hovers around the previously discussed by-products of an African American culture that overemphasizes athletics and shuns education. In sequence, the mass media amplifies and disseminates these by-products through repeated circulation and broadcasting. To put it briefly, the mass media is not to blame for the stereotype. The mass media simply reflects and magnifies the residue of the currently dominant, involuntary minority, African American culture.

Ultimately, I contend that the “anti-intellectual” stereotype threat is the last step in a vicious inconspicuous cycle, a cycle that began with slavery and racism and has evolved quietly over time. As involuntary migrants who were enslaved against their will and excluded from the dominant culture, African Americans involuntarily developed an opposing culture. As a result of this separate culture, African Americans cherished different values. These values unfortunately were and still are, opposed to education. An opposition which results in less African Americans in academic institutions of higher learning as well as a lack of desire to become educated. Not surprisingly, the lack of African Americans participating in intellectual activities coupled with the amplifying effect of the mass media, has led to the stereotype that African Americans are “anti-intellectual.” Most important are the effects of the persistence of the “anti-intellectual” stereotype on society. As has been shown through statistics, there still exists an academic achievement gap amidst all the progress over the last forty years. This gap may clearly be attributed to the threat of the “anti-intellectual” stereotype on African American students. If this stereotype threat is to blame for the achievement gap, then we as a society should strive to eliminate yet another obstacle that blocks the steps to success for many African Americans. Only in doing so, can we truly grant every citizen the freedom and opportunity to pursue the true American dream.

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