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Tracy James
IU Media Relations

Dennis Rome
Department of Criminal Justice

Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Mass media and the African American criminal male stereotype

IU professor describes media distortion in new book

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Dennis Rome, a sociologist and associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University Bloomington, wants to open people's eyes to a form of indoctrination they experience day in and day out. It poisons race relations in the United States, Rome says, by contributing to negative stereotypes of African American men, creating damaging self-fulfilling prophecies for black youth and bolstering an age-old fear many white Americans have of African Americans.

Rome charges contemporary mass media with such "conceptual entrapment by imagery" in his new book, Black Demons: Mass Media's Depiction of the African American Male Criminal Stereotype, published this month by Praeger Publishers. While the book is geared to the college classroom, Rome wrote it to appeal to the general public as well, which he would like to see take a more critical view of media that he says foster a negative stereotype of African Americans.

Contemporary media, he says, particularly through extreme gangster rap music, reality crime shows and newscasts, have essentially defined crime and given it a black face, despite statistics that paint a different picture. For example, he cites statistics that point to higher cocaine use among whites than blacks, an impression one does not get while watching the evening news or the reality show COPS, he says.

Rome has been researching issues related to crime, media, race and ethnic relations for 15 years. What has evolved from his work is a schema, central to his book, that involves several steps:

  • The media report on crimes, showing images that viewers then associate with crime.
  • The media report on crimes without showing images. Viewers have in mind the images shown previously.
  • When viewers later think about crimes, they look for indications that support their conception of crime, which was formed by what they saw in the media reports.

"I want people to understand the conceptualization, the entrapment by the media, and not be too quickly convinced of what they see," Rome says. "If we understand how we conceptualize these media images, we can begin to change our behavior."

The schema has applications for scholars as well. "We have a better chance of understanding how behavior is shaped if we can understand how concepts of crime are shaped in the mind," he says.

Black Demons includes chapters devoted to reality police shows and extreme gangster rap music, which is often brutal toward black women yet is purchased largely by white suburban males, Rome says. He makes a strong case for how the African American male criminal stereotype continues to be used to justify covert and overt racism. He also provides a historical analysis of how the dominant society has employed and still employs this stereotype to keep blacks assigned to second-class citizenship. The myth of the black rapist, for example, was used to justify lynching and to keep African Americans in a vulnerable position.

Rome's schema can be used to evaluate other social issues as well. Concerning crime, however, Rome has some suggestions for reversing the negative stereotypes and images.

"This country needs to stop participating in a prison-industrial complex, where fear is created so people are more willing to fund prison construction than schools," he says. "We also need to look at alternative measures for affecting behavior. Punitive punishment doesn't work."

He says the citizenry also would benefit from news media with more diverse ideas, not just more diverse ethnicity.

Rome can be reached at 812-855-8805 and