Black America-Stereotypes, Discrimination, and Criminalization
The fact that African Americans are over-represented in the country’s prison system has led many researchers to investigate the root cause of this over representation. The purpose of this paper is to highlight some of the major stereotypes of African Americans as well as their history of discrimination. The paper will also focus on how discrimination and stereotypes of the African American people has impacted the race’s current rate of incarceration and arrest trends in a bid to obliterate the trend.
Stereotypes about African Americans
Stereotypes about African Americans and their culture stem from as early as the years of colonial settlement. These stereotypical nuances have withstood the passage of time and have evolved to become a dominant force in the way other races in the country view African Americans as a people. The perception of African Americans by the rest of the country is closely tied to their social strata in the country.
One modern stereotype that the media continues to portray of African Americans is that they are drug lords and crack victims. Black Americans are more likely to appear as the engineers of drug and violent crime in media news reports. Black males are often portrayed as drug dealers, crack victims, homeless, subway muggers, and the underclass in most of the media reports. People perceive African American males as being criminals and dangerous. This negative connotation of black American males has contributed significantly to racial profiling by law enforcement agencies (Mann, Zatz, and Rodriguez, 2006).
Another stereotype is that all black folk play the race card when something does not go their way. Whites often complain that African Americans make everything about race and that is why they are continuously being left behind economically and socially. The race card is not a black person’s go to defense for all of the misfortunes that a black person goes through. This misconception of using the race card is meant to silence the African Americans on some of the racial disparities they encounter on an everyday basis. Many African Americans will not claim that they were mistreated because of their race because they do not want to be seen as someone who makes everything about race.
Black people are often depicted as lazy and unintelligent in the media. It even reached a point where white scientists were trying to prove that African Americans had smaller brain sizes compared to the white Americans. This stereotype was created to cushion white America against the harsh reality of the racial divide in the country. They blame the African Americans for their high rates of incarceration and poverty levels because they believe that the black folk are too lazy to go to school, work hard, and make something of themselves. With this kind of mentality, white America does not feel morally obligated to change the systemic racial divide that ensures that black Americans do not succeed economically, politically, and socially.
Another negative stereotype is that black women thrive on being on welfare because they and their men are inherently lazy. This is known as the ‘welfare queen’ stereotype that portrays African Americans’, especially women, over dependence on welfare. The stereotype also suggests that these women collect excessive welfare through fraud and manipulation. Media outlets propagated the stereotype during the 1960s. It led to an overestimation of the number of black people who live below the poverty line. It is surprising to note that only a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line compared to the national average of 15%.
African American women are deemed less feminine than females from other races. In movies, songs, and media reports, African American women are represented as angry black women, narcissistic independent women, or gold diggers. The angry black woman is perhaps the most pervasive negative stereotype of African American women. Media reports sensationalized Michelle Obama as an angry black woman during her husband’s presidential campaign.
The ‘independent black woman’ is often depicted as a narcissistic, aggressive, financially successful woman who berates the black males in her life. She finds joy in emasculating the male African Americans in her life because she believes she is better than them owing to her financial success.
History of Discrimination
The history of discrimination against African Americans began with the slave trade. Europeans bought slaves from the West coast of Africa and brought them to the United States to work as slaves in the plantation fields. The slaves were not paid for their hard labor and they often lived in squalid conditions.
Even after the abolition of slavery after the end of the Civil War, the African Americans continued to be discriminated against by the white majority. For instance, even if they were no longer slaves, the African American children were not allowed to attend the same schools as their white counterparts or even the same churches. Blacks were also not allowed to vote, as they were not considered legitimate citizens of the United States. This was known as the segregation period where there was a complete separation between the black and the white Americans.
The second half of the 19th century saw the rise of a racially inclined terrorist group known as the Ku Klux Klan. The clan consisted of white males and its reach stretched across the country. The group orchestrated violent raids and murders against black people and white people who sympathized with the blacks. The Klansmen would ride through the countryside at night wearing white hoods and beating up every black person they found on their way.
Discriminatory statutes such as the grandfather clauses also led to the disenfranchisement of the black minority in the country. New legislation in the late 19th century created new requirements for literacy, payment of poll taxes, and property restrictions in order for one to qualify to vote. The purpose of the grandfather clauses was to block poor and illiterate black former slaves and their children from voting without denying the illiterate and poor white individuals their right to vote.
The disparity in legislature also extended to the state, whereby state legislation allocated vast amounts of federal money to support white schools while giving black schools a disproportionate amount. In addition, county officials usually redistributed the financial resources given to black schools to the white educational institutions. The intent here was to ensure that black children did not get the education needed to remove them and their families from poverty.
During the Great Migration, more than a million African American relocated to the North from the South in search of better jobs. Despite the fact that most of the African Americans who relocated to the North were educated, systemic racism ensured that they were given the jobs with the lowest status. In addition, the African Americans were forced to live in the poorest of neighborhoods. The migration led to a sharp increase in white hostility against the blacks, so much so that lynching and mob directed hangings of African Americans were commonplace in the 1920s.
The Jim Crow laws, enforced from 1876 to 1965, also served to disenfranchise the African Americans. The laws called for separate but equal treatment of African Americans. Public schools, public transport, and public spaces would have separate facilities for both white and black people. However, the separate accommodation given to blacks was always inferior to what the whites were provided with.
Places where black people congregated continued to be targets for attack by white extremist groups throughout the twentieth century. The Ku Klux Klan carried out the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that left four innocent black girls dead. The bombing attracted national attention to the issue of racial divide, white extremism, and systemic racism and discrimination.
Even with the subsequent demise of the Jim Crow laws, African Americans continue to be discriminated against in many ways. De-industrialization has resulted in the deepening of black poverty with African American literacy levels continuing to plague the community. Violence against black gathering places has continued until today exemplified by the Charleston church shooting that occurred in 2015. The shootings left nine people dead. From 1981 to 1999, the US Department of Agriculture refused to give tens of thousands of African American farmers, loans, and subsidies. These loans were subsequently given to white farmers who were in similar circumstances as their African American counterparts.
Impact of stereotypes and discrimination on current trends of incarceration
The crime rate in America is at an historical low yet the numbers of African Americans in the prison system continues to skyrocket. Crime rates have been slowly declining over the past thirty years and yet more and more black Americans are going to prison. The war on drugs in the country that began in the 1980s is also to blame for the disproportionately high incarceration rates of African Americans.
The war on drugs led to the explosion of African Americans sent to prison. The war has caused systemic racial disparities in the sentencing of African American defendants that it has become a giant mistake. The reason for this magnanimous failure is the fact that the war was waged exclusively against poor black communities in the country. This is despite the fact that whites sell and use illegal drugs at an equal rate, if not higher, than African Americans.
Research has provided evidence that links racial influences to incarceration decisions. In most instances, African American defendants are more likely to receive a prison sentence as compared to white defendants. In addition, their race predisposes them to serve a longer prison sentence than white defendants for similar crimes. Race can also be linked indirectly to incarceration decisions through mediating practices including plea-bargaining, and pretrial release.
Due to racial disparities in sentencing, African Americans usually serve an additional one to seven months based on their minority status. This means that if a person with majority status were to commit the crime, he would serve one to seven months less than an African American offender. In addition, research has shown that African American defendants were more likely to be convicted than their white male counterparts were especially if the former was young and unemployed (Mann, Zatz, and Rodriguez, 2006).
The stereotype that African American women are less feminine than their white counterparts has also influenced the former’s incarceration trends. African American women are perceived as highly aggressive, which is uncharacteristic of female behavior. Most of them are also not seen as being capable of exhibiting feministic behavior such as chastity, obedience calmness, and dependence. For this reason, the African American women usually receive harsher sentences than white females despite the fact that the crimes committed by the two races fall in the same category. The harsher sentences are due to the perspective of perceived threat emanating from the African American females.
Mann, C.R., Zatz, M.S., & Rodriguez, N. (Eds.). (2006). Images of Color, Images of Crime: Readings. Madison Avenue, NY: Oxford University Press.