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Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans

Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans

by Laura Green
Virginia Commonwealth University

As human beings, we naturally evaluate everything we come in contact with. We especially try to gain insight and direction from our evaluations of other people. Stereotypes are "cognitive structures that contain the perceiver's knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about human groups" (Peffley et al., 1997, p. 31). These cognitive constructs are often created out of a kernel of truth and then distorted beyond reality (Hoffmann, 1986). Racial stereotypes are constructed beliefs that all members of the same race share given characteristics. These attributed characteristics are usually negative (Jewell, 1993).

This paper will identify seven historical racial stereotypes of African-Americans and demonstrate that many of these distorted images still exist in society today. Additionally, strategies for intervention and the implications of this exploration into racial stereotypes will be presented.

Description of the Problem

The racial stereotypes of early American history had a significant role in shaping attitudes toward African-Americans during that time. Images of the Sambo, Jim Crow, the Savage, Mammy, Aunt Jemimah, Sapphire, and Jezebelle may not be as powerful today, yet they are still alive.


One of the most enduring stereotypes in American history is that of the Sambo (Boskin, 1986). This pervasive image of a simple-minded, docile black man dates back at least as far as the colonization of America. The Sambo stereotype flourished during the reign of slavery in the United States. In fact, the notion of the "happy slave" is the core of the Sambo caricature. White slave owners molded African-American males, as a whole, into this image of a jolly, overgrown child who was happy to serve his master. However, the Sambo was seen as naturally lazy and therefore reliant upon his master for direction. In this way, the institution of slavery was justified. Bishop Wipple's Southern Diary, 1834-1844, is evidence of this justification of slavery, "They seem a happy race of beings and if you did not know it you would never imagine that they were slaves" (Boskin, 1989, p. 42). However, it was not only slave owners who adopted the Sambo stereotype (Boskin, 1989). Although Sambo was born out of a defense for slavery, it extended far beyond these bounds. It is essential to realize the vast scope of this stereotype. It was transmitted through music titles and lyrics, folk sayings, literature, children's stories and games, postcards, restaurant names and menus, and thousands of artifacts (Goings, 1994). White women, men and children across the country embraced the image of the fat, wide-eyed, grinning black man. It was perpetuated over and over, shaping enduring attitudes toward African-Americans for centuries. In fact, "a stereotype may be so consistently and authoritatively transmitted in each generation from parent to child that it seems almost a biological fact" (Boskin, 1986, p. 12).

Jim Crow

The stereotyping of African-Americans was brought to the theatrical stage with the advent of the blackface minstrel (Engle, 1978). Beginning in the early 19th century, white performers darkened their faces with burnt cork, painted grotesquely exaggerated white mouths over their own, donned woolly black wigs and took the stage to entertain society. The character they created was Jim Crow. This "city dandy" was the northern counterpart to the southern "plantation darky," the Sambo (Engle, 1978 p. 3).

Performer T.D. Rice is the acknowledged "originator" of the American blackface minstrelsy. His inspiration for the famous minstrel dance-and-comedy routine was an old, crippled, black man dressed in rags, whom he saw dancing in the street (Engle, 1978). During that time, a law prohibited African-Americans from dancing because it was said to be "crossing your feet against the lord" (Hoffmann, 1986, video). As an accommodation to this law, African-Americans developed a shuffling dance in which their feet never left the ground. The physically impaired man Rice saw dancing in this way became the prototype for early minstrelsy (Engle 1978). In 1830, when "Daddy" Rice performed this same dance, "...the effect was electric..." (Bean et al., 1996, p. 7). White actors throughout the north began performing "the Jim Crow" to enormous crowds, as noted by a New York newspaper. "Entering the theater, we found it crammed from pit to dome..." (Engle, 1978, p. xiv). This popularity continued, and at the height of the minstrel era, the decades preceding and following the Civil War, there were at least 30 full-time blackface minstrel companies performing across the nation (Engle, 1978).

The "foppish" black caricature, Jim Crow, became the image of the black man in the mind of the white western world (Engle, 1978). This image was even more powerful in the north and west because many people never had come into contact with African-American individuals. It has been argued that "[t]he image of the minstrel clown has been the most persistent and influential image of blacks in American history" (Engle, 1978, p. xiv). Words from the folk song "Jim Crow," published by E. Riley in 1830, further demonstrate the transmission of this stereotype of African-Americans to society: "I'm a full blooded niggar, ob de real ole stock, and wid my head and shoulder I can split a horse block. Weel about and turn about and do jis so, eb'ry time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow" (Bean et al., 1997, p. 11).

The method of representing African-Americans as "shuffling and drawling, cracking and dancing, wisecracking and high stepping" buffoons evolved over time (Engle, 1978, p. xiv). Self-effacing African-American actors began to play these parts both on the stage and in movies. Bert Williams was a popular African-American artist who performed this stereotype for white society. The response was also wildly enthusiastic as 26 million Americans went to the movies to see Al Jolson in the "Jazz Singer" (Boskin 1986).

The Savage

Movies were, and still are, a powerful medium for the transmission of stereotypes. Early silent movies such as "The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon" in 1904, "The Slave" in 1905, "The Sambo Series" 1909-1911 and "The Nigger" in 1915 offered existing stereotypes through a fascinating new medium (Boskin, 1986). The premiere of "Birth of a Nation" during the reconstruction period in 1915 marked the change in emphasis from the happy Sambo and the pretentious and inept Jim Crow stereotypes to that of the Savage. In this D.W. Griffith film, the Ku Klux Klan tames the terrifying, savage African-American through lynching. Following emancipation, the image of the threatening brute from the "Dark Continent" was revitalized. Acts of racial violence were justified and encouraged through the emphasis on this stereotype of the Savage. The urgent message to whites was, we must put blacks in their place or else (Boskin, 1986).

Old themes about African-Americans began to well up in the face of the perceived threat. Beliefs that blacks were "mentally inferior, physically and culturally unevolved, and apelike in appearance" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 795) were supported by prominent white figures like Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson. Theodore Roosevelt publicly stated that "As a race and in the mass [the Negroes] are altogether inferior to whites" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 796). The ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica published in 1884 stated authoritatively that "...the African race occupied the lowest position of the evolutionary scale, thus affording the best material for the comparative study of the highest anthropoids and the human species" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 795). This idea of African-Americans as apelike savages was exceptionally pervasive. For example, in 1906, the New York Zoological Park featured an exhibit with an African-American man and a chimpanzee. Several years later, the Ringling Brothers Circus exhibited "the monkey man," a black man was caged with a female chimpanzee that had been trained to wash clothes and hang them on a line (Plous & Williams, 1995).

Scientific studies were conducted to establish the proper place of the African-American in society. Scientists conducted tests and measurements and concluded that blacks were savages for the following reasons: "(a) The abnormal length of the arm...; (b) weight of brain... [Negro's] 35 ounces, gorilla 20 ounces, average European 45 ounces; (c) short flat snub nose; (d) thick protruding lips; (e) exceedingly thick cranium; (f) short, black hair, eccentricity elliptical or almost flat in sections, and distinctly woolly; and (g) thick epidermis" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 796). In addition to these presumed anatomical differences, African-Americans were thought to be far less sensitive to pain than whites. For example, black women were thought to experience little pain with childbirth and "...bear cutting with much impunity as dogs and rabbits" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 796). These stereotypes of the animal-like savage were used to rationalize the harsh treatment of slaves during slavery as well as the murder, torture and oppression of African-Americans following emancipation. However, it can be argued that this stereotype still exists today.

There were four stereotypes for female African-Americans, the Mammy, Aunt Jemimah, Sapphire, and Jezebelle. The most enduring of these is the Mammy. Although this stereotype originated in the South, it eventually permeated every region. As with the Sambo, the Mammy stereotype arose as a justification of slavery.

The Mammy

The Mammy was a large, independent woman with pitch-black skin and shining white teeth (Jewell, 1993). She wore a drab calico dress and head scarf and lived to serve her master and mistress. The Mammy understood the value of the white lifestyle. The stereotype suggests that she raised the "massa's" children and loved them dearly, even more than her own. Her tendency to give advice to her mistress was seen as harmless and humorous. Although she treated whites with respect, the Mammy was a tyrant in her own family. She dominated her children and husband, the Sambo, with her temper. This image of the Mammy as the controller of the African-American male, was used as further evidence of his inferiority to whites (Jewell, 1993).

Because Mammy was masculine in her looks and temperament, she was not seen as a sexual being or threat to white women (Jewell, 1993). This obese, matronly figure with her ample bosom and behind was the antithesis of the European standard of beauty. Because she was non-threatening to whites, Mammy was considered " American as apple pie" (Jewell, 1993, p. 41).

The Mammy stereotype was presented to the public in literature and movies. Possibly the most outstanding example is the Mammy role played by Hattie McDaniel in "Gone with the Wind" (Goings, 1994). The book, published in 1936 by Margaret Mitchell, helped to keep the mythical past of African-Americans in the old South alive. The large number of people whose attitudes were shaped by this portrayal is demonstrated through its phenomenal sales record. The Bible is the only book that rivals "Gone with the Wind" in total sales. Additionally, the movie version remains one of the biggest box-office successes in history. Mitchell's characters simultaneously won the hearts of Americans and fixed stereotypes of African-Americans in their minds (Goings, 1994).

Aunt Jemimah

The stereotype of Aunt Jemimah evolved out of the Mammy image (Jewell, 1993). She differs from Mammy in that her duties were restricted to cooking. It was through Aunt Jemimah that the association of the African-American woman with domestic work, especially cooking, became fixed in the minds of society. As a result, hundreds of Aunt Jemimah collectibles found their way into the American kitchens. These black collectibles included grocery list holders, salt and pepper shakers, spoon holders, stovetop sets, flour scoops, spatulas, mixing bowls, match holders, teapots, hot-pad holders, and much more (Goings, 1994). Perhaps Aunt Jemimah's most famous image is in the pancake advertisement campaign. In St. Joseph, Mo., in 1889, Chris Rutt chose "Aunt Jemimah" as the name for his new self-rising pancake mix, because "it just naturally made me think of good cooking." Obviously, others agreed because the campaign was an instant success. Rutt sold his company to Davis Milling Co., which chose Nancy Green as the Aunt Jemimah products spokesperson. This character developed a loyal following of both blacks and whites. To these people, Aunt Jemimah had become reality. Her face still can be found on the pancake boxes today. Although her image has changed slightly, the stereotype lives on (Goings, 1994).


Sapphire was a stereotype solidified through the hit show "Amos 'n' Andy" (Jewell, 1993). This profoundly popular series began on the radio in 1926 and developed into a television series, ending in the 1950s (Boskin, 1986). This cartoon show depicted the Sapphire character as a bossy, headstrong woman who was engaged in an ongoing verbal battle with her husband, Kingfish (Jewell, 1993). Sapphire possessed the emotional makeup of the Mammy and Aunt Jemimah combined. Her fierce independence and cantankerous nature placed her in the role of matriarch. She dominated her foolish husband by emasculating him with verbal put-downs. This stereotype was immensely humorous to white Americans. Her outrageous "...hand on the hip, finger-pointing style..." helped carry this show through 4,000 episodes before it was terminated due to its negative racial content (Jewell, 1993, p. 45).


The final female stereotype is Jezebelle, the harlot. This image of the "bad Black girl" represented the undeniable sexual side of African-American women (Jewell, 1993). The traditional Jezebelle was a light-skinned, slender Mulatto girl with long straight hair and small features. She more closely resembled the European ideal for beauty than any pre-existing images. Where as the Mammy, Aunt Jemimah and Sapphire were decidedly asexual images, this stereotype was immensely attractive to white males. The creation of the hyper-sexual seductress Jezebelle served to absolve white males of responsibility in the sexual abuse and rape of African-American women. Black women in such cases were said to be "askin' for it" (Goings, 1994, p. 67).

Stereotypes today

Although much has changed since the days of Sambo, Jim Crow, the Savage, Mammy, Aunt Jemimah, Sapphire and Jezebelle, it can be argued convincingly that similar stereotypes of African-Americans exist in 1998. Author Joseph Boskin states that "...there should be little doubt that aspects of Sambo live on in the White mind and show through the crevices of American culture in subtle and sophisticated ways" (Boskin, 1986, p. 15). However, the predominant modern stereotypes are the violent, brutish African-American male and the dominant, lazy African-American female - the Welfare Mother (Peffley Hurwitz & Sniderman, 1997). Recent research has shown that whites are likely to hold these stereotypes especially with respect to issues of crime and welfare. As political and legislative decisions still are controlled by white males, these negative biases are often expressed through policy formation. There is an obvious trend in this society to discriminate against and deny access to social institutions to African-Americans (Jewell, 1993). A 1997 study conducted by Peffley et al indicated that whites who hold negative stereotypes of African-Americans judge them more harshly than they do other whites when making hypothetical decisions about violent crimes and welfare benefits.

Plous & Williams (1995) were interested in measuring the extent to which whites still hold the racial stereotypes formed in the days of "American Slavery"; however, they noted a lack of current data on this subject. National public opinion surveys do not measure racial stereotypes, yet these authors found some research that indicated that there has been a steady decline in the belief that whites are more intelligent than blacks. Plous & Williams suspected there was reason to doubt this conclusion and conducted their own survey on the current existence of stereotypes. Findings revealed that 58.9 percent of black and white subjects endorsed at least one stereotypical difference in inborn ability. Additionally, whites are 10 times more likely to be seen as superior in artistic ability and abstract thinking ability; and African-Americans were 10 times more likely to be seen as superior in athletic ability and rhythmic ability. Further, 49 percent of subjects endorsed stereotypical differences in physical characteristics such as blacks experience less physical pain that whites and have thicker skulls and skin. Interestingly, African-Americans and those subjects without a high school degree were more likely than others to endorse racial stereotypes (Plous & Williams, 1995). This finding shows how individuals internalize negative self-stereotypes.

Some recent incidents indicating the continued existence of racial stereotypes were noted in the news (Plous & Williams, 1995). In 1991 the Los Angeles police officers who beat African-American Rodney King referred to a domestic dispute among African-Americans as "right out of 'Gorillas in the Mist'" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 812). Similarly, in 1992, the director of Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration resigned after "likening inner-city youths to monkeys in the jungle" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 812 ).

Conclusion and Implications

It is important to gauge accurately the level and nature of prejudice and stereotyping of African-Americans in contemporary society if one is to intervene effectively in these areas (Plous & Williams, 1995). However, in order to do this, society as a whole must come to terms with the fact that stereotypes and oppression still exist today. We have made enormous progress since the days of slavery and the stereotypes that supported it. Yet it seems that many people are unaware of the remaining stereotypes, negative attitudes, and oppression of African-Americans. Because stereotypes are so often accepted as the truth, defining the problem is a crucial step of intervention.

It is also important to explore how stereotypes are formed and dispelled in order to intervene in the problem. Many people develop expectations based on their beliefs and are inclined to ignore or reject information that is inconsistent with these beliefs. These individuals look for information that supports stereotypes. Therefore, encouraging people to recognize information that is consistent with stereotypes may be helpful in dispelling damaging stereotypes within society.

It is, then, essential to provide people with information that challenges stereotypes. Because the media's portrayal of African-Americans has been and still is conducive to the formation of stereotypes, interventions in this area are a good place to start. Currently, African-Americans are over-represented as sports figures (Peffley et al, 1997). Reevaluation of the content of television commercials, magazine advertisements, movies, plays, cultural events, museum exhibits, and other media reveals where African-American representation needs to be increased. There is nothing wrong with the image of the African-American athlete. However, it is the portrayal of this image at the exclusion of other positive images that leads to stereotyping (Hoffmann, 1986).

Finally, educating people about damaging, inaccurate stereotypes is recommended. Small focus groups involving individuals of different races could be organized through agencies, schools, universities or churches. Discussion of racial stereotypes and attitudes in a safe format would allow people to explore and possibly discard stereotypes. Individuals can reassess their own prejudices and biases and effect a change within themselves. Through a non-judgmental process of exploration, the possibility that people who believe and perpetuate stereotypes do so not out of hate but as a means of protecting themselves can be considered. They may do so out of ignorance, habit or fear rather than maliciousness. By suspending our disbelief and seeing each person as an individual rather than through the eyes of a preconceived stereotype, we can begin this change on the individual level. As a result, resolution on the community and societal levels can occur.


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