Slanging Drugs and Joining Gangs

11 May

Television and movies both portray young African American and Latino men in a similar light; they are typically troubled, from a bad neighborhood, using or dealing drugs and participating in gang related activity.

It’s a formula that is often used in Law & Order, CSI, and movies as well.

These representations provide viewers with a fallacy and stereotype about their fellow community members. People assume because they are seen this way in film, that there must be a truthful source that this information comes from and they let this information support the influences of their own personal cultural story. They draw assumptions that these people exist in their neighborhoods or their cities and that they are partaking in the same illegal activities; therefore they should be feared. They become targets. These types of myths become embedded in the memory of individuals and can result in unfair treatment of young African American and Latino men.

I believe that these type of cultural misunderstandings are taken beyond the community and into the structure and are acted upon by members of the legal system. According to the Seattle Times, African American drug dealers are more likely to be arrested than whites.  Research from Professor Katherine Beckett from the University of Washington states that nearly two thirds of prisoners arrested on drug related charges were black– only 19% percent of those prisoners were white; furthermore Beckett goes on to explain that there is evidence that leads people to believe that white individuals deal just as many drugs as black individuals.  Seeing this evidence, we’re forced to question what makes this happen? Is it a result from profiling? Is it embedded in racism from America’s history? Or is it the reinforcing images we see in the media that illustrate these fallacies?

Rene Martin of Womanis Musings examines this very concept in her article Law and Order: The Invisible Black Victim:

“How many times do we have to see the black man as rapist, drug dealer, or all around criminal low life on Law and Order?  How many times is the black woman either not mentioned, or portrayed as a prostitute, uneducated, working poor, or single mother? “

Martin believes that these intentional representations and lack thereof are reinforcing the socially constructed “body of colour” that makes people assume these stereotypes are true.

How does this affect children?

A rather dated article from 1997 in El Futuro titled “Who’s On the Air? Latino Representations in the Media” examines how this is not an issue for only African American members of the community, but other non-white members as well. The article examines how research has surfaced regarding children’s perception of race after long term exposure to media. This observational study showed how children were able to draw the relationship between white and Latino portrayal simply by the positions they hold as characters.

“Many children also noted that non-Latino white characters play most of the professional roles, such as doctors, secretaries, managers and police officers, while ethnic minorities are often shown as busboys, gardeners and criminals. Given this observation, it isn’t surprising that they tended to associate positive characteristics such as wealth, education and high academic achievement with white characters on television, and negative characteristics such as criminal behavior, laziness, apathy, and low socioeconomic status with characters of color.”

This begs the question of whether or not children grow up to find their success or their demise by way of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Do children learn things about themselves through their cultural representation through media? Or is it the nurture factor that creates an environment that shapes them a certain way?

The questions that are posed have a great deal of research behind them– however, long term and intensive observational studies are really necessary in order to create any strong pieces of evidence that can show direct correlation between these events. We can however draw inferences from the evidence we have and the representations we see.


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