TV Portrayals of Minorities Criticized

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From time to time, Jennifer Bracamontes recognizes a Latino on prime-time television.

But she has to look hard. She looks past the glitzy main characters, the heroes and funny guys. She finds them lower on television’s totem pole.

“In some cases you, like, notice that the only person of color was sweeping leaves on the street,” said Bracamontes, a 17-year-old Harvard University-bound senior who attends Garfield High School in Los Angeles. “It’s noticeable on certain shows.”

Negative television stereotypes of minorities are widespread, according to a study of children’s perceptions of race and class portrayals on prime-time news, comedies and dramas.


The study, released Wednesday by Children Now, found that 66% of white actors have positive roles on television but that few actors of Latino, African and Asian descent have such roles.

What’s more, the study found, white characters are more often rich, well-educated, leaders and high academic achievers while characters of color often break the law, are lazy and “act goofy.”

“Young people believe that negative messages are sent to children who do not see their race on TV,” the study concluded. “A focus group of older African American boys listed the messages: ‘They don’t have a chance. . . . They’ll never get on TV. . . . You’re not good enough.’ ”

Bracamontes, a Latina who didn’t participate in the study, said she doesn’t allow negative images to steer her opinions of anyone.

Still, several writers and producers of TV shows in Los Angeles said they weren’t surprised by the survey’s findings.

“The bottom line is that what the kids are saying is right,” said Bob Ward, a former producer of the Fox show, “New York Undercover,” which features black and Latino main characters. “I know obviously that racism is involved.”


Jeff Greenstein, creator and executive producer of Fox’s “Getting Personal” and a former producer of NBC’s “Friends,” said the findings of the study are “very disappointing.”

He said that too many Los Angeles television executives are so fixated on stale TV formulas that they fail to see the cultural demographics changing around them.

The producer agreed with the study’s findings that black and Latino characters are often portrayed negatively, and Asians “are practically invisible in television,” at a time when Latino and Asian populations are growing rapidly nationwide.

Calling the study the first of its kind, Children Now president Lois Salisbury said she hopes “media leaders get the clear messages that children are sending to them.”

Children Now bills itself as a nonpartisan voice for America’s children. Its survey, called “A Different World: Children’s Perception of Race and Class in the Media,” was funded by the Carnegie Corp., the Ford Foundation, Gap Inc. and the Levi Strauss Foundation, among others.

“The most stunning result was how clearly, how powerfully and how early all kids saw inequities across entertainment television and TV news,” Salisbury said. “At the same time, children saw the importance of all races being reflected in the media, and the power of the media to provide role models or perpetuate stereotypes.”


The study used a tool of the television medium--focus groups--to gather the opinions of 1,200 children between the ages of 10 and 17 in Alameda, Calif.; Montgomery, Ala.; Baltimore, and Newark.

During a week in December, the youngsters watched news, dramas and situation comedies that aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB networks between 7 and 10 p.m.

A question that listed a variety of characters asked, “Which race do you usually see playing this role on television?”

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said a criminal is likely to be portrayed as African American; 53% said a white actor will probably portray a police officer.

A boss, doctor or secretary is more likely to be white, according to most respondents. Yet a maid or janitor is more likely to be Latino or black. Asian characters almost went unnoticed.

Greenstein said his Fox show, “Getting Personal,” starring Vivica Fox, an African American, is an example of television putting a positive spin on black people.


“I don’t think you have another woman in television whose character is as assertive and smart as Vivica’s character,” Greenstein said.

For the most part, however, he said, television’s landscape still appears barren when it comes to positive minority roles. “I throw the responsibility at the feet of the people who produce television shows.”


As seen on TV

Children Now asked 1,200 youngsters in four cities for their opinions of how whites and minorities are portrayed on television. Here are some findings from the survey, released Wednesday.


How often do you see your race?


Very often: 71%

Often: 19

Every now and then: 9

Never: -


African American

Very often: 42%

Often: 36

Every now and then: 18

Never: 3



Very often: 22%

Often: 27

Every now and then: 44

Never: 7



Very often: 16%

Often: 20

Every now and then: 51

Never: 13


Whom children associated with positive qualities

White characters Having lots of money: 58%

Being well educated: 46

Being a leader: 44

Doing well in school: 37

Being intelligent: 32


Minority characters

Having lots of money: 8%

Being well educated: 10

Being a leader: 12

Doing well in school: 8

Being intelligent: 9


About the same

Having lots of money: 30%

Being well educated: 40

Being a leader: 37

Doing well in school: 50

Being intelligent: 54


Whom children associated with negative qualities

White characters Breaking the law or the rules: 6%

Having a hard time financially: 8

Being lazy: 14

Acting goofy: 19


Minorityi characters

Breaking the law or the rules: 47%

Having a hard time financially: 46

Being lazy: 31

Acting goofy: 27


About the same

Breaking the law or the rules: 42%

Having a hard time financially: 41

Being lazy: 43

Acting goofy: 47

Source: Children Now