While I was growing up I remember our fifth grade teacher asked us to introduce ourselves and tell the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. A boy in my class said he wanted to be a basketball player. As we went around the circle telling our answers I noticed that many of the other boys in my class also wanted to be basketball players. At the time these young boys answers did not seem unusual or concerning, but looking back I realize this same answer is being uttered by young African American men today. A large population of young African American boys in underprivileged communities believe that sports are the only way out of the “Hood”. But why has this become the case?
In my opinion, the media is one of the main sources that helps promote the implication that sports are the only way out of impoverished areas. The average teenager in the United States spends hours watching television shows and movies, listening to music, reading books and magazines, and being online. There is no doubt that the media helps shape society’s understanding of social norms.
With that being said often African Americans are misrepresented in the media. African Americans shown on TV shows, movies, and videogames are often presented displaying an array of stereotypes. Black men are often associated with being unemployed and uneducated criminals, or successful musicians and athletes. These categorizations not only shape how other races in society perceive African Americans to be, but also creates barriers in our own society.
Films often show only one-dimensional African American characters. Some of the most classic movies in the African American community involve young black men using athletics to get into the pros and removing themselves from the harmful communities they grew up in. The Cookout is a comedy about a young black athlete who recently has been signed to a pro basketball team and moved into a predominately white neighborhood. He and his family are pressured to adjust to the common lifestyle of his neighbors. Gridiron Gang is drama film about young inmates in a juvenile detention center who are brought together by a faculty worker to play football in order to help distract them from the surrounding environment and encourage them to focus on something positive and active rather than to get caught up in the streets.
The variety of accomplishments made by black men are too often underrepresented. The average black man is only recognized in media after he has been gunned down or committed a crime and acknowledged for his achievements. Most of the few successful black men the media show are men who have careers in athletics or entertainment. The majority of popular players in sports are black athletes such as Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Stephen Curry and even mentors such as Magic Johnson or Shaquille O’Neal. I believe we have sports idol and anti-segregation supporter Jackie Robinson to thank for these talented and acknowledged athletes. I believe it is clear that Jackie paved the way for the black athletes today. We knew of the hatred and cruelty Jackie had to quietly endure from the fans and the press and the anti-integrationist teams and even from his teammates. It is now time for black intellectuals to come together and make a new name for blacks as Jackie once did for baseball.
Black Americans are overrepresented in sports, but highly underrepresented in everything else. It is more likely that the average black person is far more familiar with the faces and lives of Serena and Venus Williams, Muhammad Ali, and Wilt Chamberlain than faces and history of Saartjie Baartman, inventor George Washington Carver, and congressman Chaka Fattah.
It is not very often that an African American sees other African Americans in media achieving academic success. This could possibly lead to the lack of academic priority among the majority. Becoming a basketball star might seem like the more glamorous and easiest route for black youths but it is a risk in and of itself. There should be more light shed on the fact that there are more black men pursuing higher education in the current years than ever before in the past. The media and society as a whole need to emphasize that education is the key to upward mobility in American society.
Clearly, the media has a huge influence on people’s self-perception. The media should be used as an instrument of change. Not everyone is going to make it to the NBA or NFL. If the media puts forth a different image of African American males to the public not only will it help improve the non-black communities outlook on African Americans, but it will bring a positive outlook within the black community as well. It is now time to emphasize that one’s cognitive abilities can carry them just as far.