Does TV Shape Ethnic Images?


This article originally appeared in Issue# 43
Research reveals Howard Beach youth test positive to ethnic characters.

The landscape from Amos 'n' Andy to The Cosby Show is littered with ethnic shows and characters who have entertained audiences and troubled anti-defamation groups. A long line of Italian mafiosi, black servants and Hispanic banditos, to name a few stereotypes, have attracted condemnation from community organizations. Yet surprisingly little is known about how audiences react to such charac­ters. Much of the concern is directed at young people. Do they see ethnic char­acters as either positive or negative role models, as real people or mere figments of fantasy.

To find out, we asked over 1,200 students at a public high school in the Howard Beach area of Queens in New York City about their attitudes towards race and ethnicity in real life and on television. The school was chosen because it con­tained a multi-ethnic population, with large numbers of black. Hispanic, and Italian-American students, and smaller groups of Irish and Asian descent. Two months after the survey was completed during the fall of 1986, this obscure Queens school suddenly became the fo­cus of unwanted national attention when several of its students were charged with murder following a racial attack. Sud­denly, the study was, also about race rela­tions in Howard Beach.

The results provide some reassurance that the attack did not necessarily reflect widespread racial antagonism. Most members of the racial and ethnic groups surveyed say they are willing to invite those from other ethnic groups into their homes. Negative stereotypes are the exception rather than the rule, although about one in three students holds negative images of blacks and Italian Americans. But negative images of other groups as "lazy," "stupid," "violent," etc., are often balanced by those who held positive images of the same groups as "friendly," "kind," "honest," and the like.

Any expression of negative stereotyping or ethnic prejudice is grounds for concern and condemnation, but it was a relief to find that such attitudes were not pervasive.

Creating Reality

Even so, there was enough mutual suspicion and intolerance to lend urgency to the question of television's role in forming or reinforcing ethnic attitudes. Television is a major part of these students' lives, accounting for a substantial portion of their leisure time. Two out of five watch television over four hours a day, and one in six watches at least six hours daily.

Students said they watched television primarily as a vehicle for entertainment but also as a learning tool and a point of entry into the wider world.

More importantly, many regard television as a learning tool and an accurate reflection of the real world. Forty percent say they learn a lot from TV, and one in four agree that "TV shows what life is really like," and "people on TV are like real life."

Interestingly, the different ethnic groups tended to watch television for somewhat different reasons. Black students were the heaviest TV watchers and were also the group most likely to use television as a learning tool. Of these students, over half said they learn a lot from TV and one-third said it teaches them things they don't learn in school. In light of these findings, it is perhaps not surpris­ing that blacks were also the group most likely to see television as a reflection of real life.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jewish students were least likely to see this correspondence between TV and the real world. The findings suggest that young people in different ethnic groups vary in their susceptibility to the various appeals of TV entertainment and the use to which they put information they gain from watching television. Yet, these ethnic variations do not change the fact that, overall, a surprising number of teenagers see the fantasy factory as a mirror of reality.

Role Models

For many, this linkage between real life and TV's version of life is relevant to their perceptions of race and ethnicity. About one-third of those with an opinion say that the ethnic characters they see on televi­sion affect their attitudes toward ethnic groups in real life. If many young people admit that their ethnic perspectives flow partly from television, then their opinions of TV characters take on a special importance. We asked them to rate a list of twenty ethnic characters ranging from Cosby's Cliff Huxtable to George Jeffer­son, from Hill Street's heroic Frank Furillo to Taxi's tiny tyrant Louis DePalma, and from the Jewish Lieutenant Samuels of Cagney and Lacey to the Asian Detective Yemana of Barney Miller. The ratings were based on two scales: how favorably the students regarded the various characters and how "typical" they considered them to be of their respective ethnic groups.

The result? The students view virtually all these characters not only in positive terms but as typical members of their ethnic group. This was true whether or not the students themselves were members of the character's ethnic group. There was a general tendency to rate characters from one's own group favora­bly, but responses to the characters them­selves often seemed to override any loyal­ties to ethnic groups.

Again, however, ethnic variations did exist within these general trends. Black students not only responded very favorably to ethnic characters in general, they were also most likely to regard these characters as typical of real-lifegroups. By contrast, Jewish students were least likely to see these characters as reflecting reality, even though they responded to them most positively. Generally, each group of students rated as most typical characters of their own ethnic back­ground, suggesting that television may affect ethnic sell-perception more than images of other groups.

So the good news is that young people have positive feelings about TV's ethnic characters, and these associations may carry over into their images of real lie groups. The bad news is that their positive identifications extend to less than exemplary characters. Black and Italian-American parents might he startled at the thought of George Jefferson or Taxi's Louis DePalma as role models for their children. Even more startling is the notion lull these characters are widely accepted as 'typical' of blacks and Italians respectively.

Yet the study suggests that the continu­ing appearance of an ethnic character, whether positive or negative, may legitimize him or her as an individual worthy of admiration, if not emulation. The results also show, however, that the more positive or favorable the response to a TV character, the more likely that the student sees the character as typical of his or her ethnic group. Thus TV may influence ethnic stereotyping mainly by encouraging viewers to identify the positive traits of television characters with the ethnic groups they represent.

Portrayal Power

Television's power to legitimize character and behavior may exceed the intentions of its creators. This is reminiscent of some troubling findings that emerged from studies of All in the Family. When Norman Lear made Archie Bunker a lovable bigot, he took care to portray Archie's biases as reprehensible. The idea was to gel viewers to laugh at his bigotry, to attack intolerance with ridicule. But surveys showed that intolerant viewers identified with Archie and allowed his sentiments to reinforce their own.

TV's tendency to create its own consensus seems to justify the often-expressed concern of America's racial and ethnic groups about the way they are portrayed in television entertainment. There is ample cause for concern. While research shows that television holds no magical power to change firmly held beliefs, it can add powerful re-enforcement to attitudes already held. For example, one study demonstrated that preju­diced viewers see Archie Bunker as an admirable character. It is only those with more tolerant attitudes who realize that Archie is actually the focus of humorous disapproval.

This role of television as a reinforcer and crystallizer of existing attitudes is significant, even if few people actually form their opinions of cultures or races based on what they see on TV. If the audience views certain ethnic and racial groups in a negative manner and televi­sion portrayals confirm those images, Then TV entertainment may be reassuring those people that their images of certain ethnic and racial groups as foolish, lower class, inarticulate, or criminal are correct.

Many have also expressed concern that negative stereotypes may particularly affect the members of those groups portrayed by giving them a negative self-image. The absence or low status of their television counterparts may encourage them to limit their own aspirations. Sur­veys also show that many people actually admit to using TV to guide them in their own social and personal situations. This dependence on television as an educa­tional tool for living is particularly strong for those with little education.

Television exercises its greatest power over those who do not hold strong opin­ions or who have no opinion or information about a particular topic or group of people. Here television may be playing a vital informational role. In dealing with a variety of socially relevant topics such as racial and ethnic relations, TV not only entertains, it conveys values and mes­sages that people may absorb unintentionally. This is particularly the case with young people.

Why Students Watch Television

Most students spend a large portion of their free time in front of the set. But their reasons for finding the time worth spending vary widely.

Asian Black Latino Jewish Italian Irish All
It brings my family together 18% 23% 20% 10% 14% 13% 18%
I learn a lot from it 35 51 36 24 28 31 40
It shows how others solve problems I have 41 38 36 31 34 27 37
I get to know different people 35 42 33 24 26 27 34
Teaches things I don't learn in school 26 32 26 16 17 11 27
Shows what life is really like 29 28 27 14 19 13 25
I learn how to act 9 12 11 2 7 2 10
It keeps me from being bored 94 86 78 86 85 89 85
Source: Television and Ethnic Images Among Howard Beach Youth, 1988
Robert Lichter is Professor of Communications at George Mason University. He and Linda S. Lichter are co-directors of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. D.C.