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Black Family Life on Television and the Socialization of the African American Child
Black Family Life on Television and the Socialization of the African American Child: Images of Marginality.


by Gordon L. Berry



Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other students of human behavior have generally agreed on the importance of the social and developmental process they refer to as socialization. The socialization process is one by which children learn the rules and regulations of their own family group, their culture, and their society. Within this framework, socialization is a process of assisting the child in acquiring the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed to get along in that society (Harris and Liebert, 1984; McConnell, 1980). Socialization also refers to the learning of information, cognitive processes, values, attitudes, social roles, self-concepts, and behaviors that are generally accepted - or expected - within one or many segments of American society (Berger and Luckmann, 1967; Dorr, 1982).


The major institutions most involved in the early learning process related to socialization have traditionally been the parents and family, the school, and religious organizations. In addition, the peer group plays a role in the process as the child matures. Of these institutions, the agent that has the most influence on the learning process of children remains the parents and family who surround them. Parents or the primary caregivers exert the most influence on the child because they serve as the models from whom children receive positive reinforcement for their behavior, as well as corrections of their actions when they fall outside of the values of the family unit and its broader cultural group.


Any analysis of the socialization process also involves a great deal of social learning which is sometimes called "modeling." Developing children frequently model both desirable and undesirable behaviors after that of others. This is especially true for those they trust and admire (Berger, 1980). The social learning theory surrounding the concepts of modeling is important because it assists us in understanding how this element of the socialization process provides children with a set of beliefs, values and attitudes about themselves, their family, ethnic group and others. These early values and beliefs learned from a variety of sources are frequently maintained by the child into adulthood.


Clearly, the agents of socialization such as the family and the other traditional institutions remain the major transmitters of values within the process of socialization. In contemporary society, however, the phenomenon of mass communication competes with these traditional socializing institutions. This is especially true of television, so this article examines the role of this medium in the socialization of African American children.




No medium within our vast communication system is more competitive with the traditional agents of socialization than television. The attractiveness of the television people, its images and messages, surrounded by a dynamic set of formal features which increases its power, means that it can create profound mental sets in children. The messages and images of television consciously and unconsciously compete with and challenge the teachings in the home and other institutions concerned with the growth and development of young people.


It is the ubiquitous nature of television in American society, and its ever-present entertainment and information, that causes it to be an important secondary socializer of the young. Television is a box that can talk, sing, record, play games, and change colors. Throughout each of these operations, television also provides for children an unending array of values and ideas about the world, people like themselves, and those who are different from them.


We know from social learning theory that any medium that can teach can also help to form attitudes and beliefs. Leifer, Gordon, and Graves (1974) suggest that children change their attitudes about people and activities to reflect those encountered in television programs. Thus, their conclusion is that television is not only entertainment for children, it is an important socializer of them. Similarly, Comstock et al. (1978) and Stroman (1984) refer to television as a source of vicarious socialization that competes with other socializing agents in providing role models and information which affect children's attitudes, beliefs and behavior. Television is also an important source of vicarious learning. From watching television families, vicarious learning of family roles, attitudes, and behaviors is expected for, in many instances, television is a more readily available and attractive socializing agent than the family itself (Abelman, 1989).


A conception of television as a socializer of children is not without precedent. Regarding the question of television's impact on children's outlook and values, Himmelweit, Oppenheim, and Vince (1966) examine the circumstances under which the socialization process might occur. Their research suggests that several principles can be formulated regarding the conditions under which television will have maximal effect on the child's values: 1) if the values or views recur from program to program; 2) if the values are presented in dramatic form so that they evoke primarily emotional reactions; 3) if they link with the child's immediate needs and interests; 4) if through friends, parents, or immediate environment, the viewer is not already supplied with a set of values which would provide a standard against which to assess the views offered by television.


The major purpose of this article is to examine the general relationship between the portrayals of African American family life on commercial television, and the potential of these images for influencing the attitudes, beliefs and values in early school-age Black children. Within the framework of the socializing influences of the portrayals, the article will also identify some research issues which need to be a part of models attempting to understand the impact of culturally marginalized television portrayals on these children.


Three factors need to be mentioned as a framework for this article. First, television portrayals, images, and its general or specific content can be complex in terms of our ability to ascertain their true effects on children and youth. That is to say, there is great variability in the manner, impact, influence, and power of the television content in terms of what its meaning will be to the individual. Second, African American children and youth, just like their peers everywhere, represent a heterogeneous group of boys and girls with social, psychological, and physical attributes which are driven by a number of unique and general cultural experiences. The level of variability of the general and personal experiences, coupled with those that are culturally unique, adds to the complexity of trying to identify specifically the influences of television. Thus, all of our research with television, children, and the socialization process turn to some degree on the nature and needs of the young viewer who is a receiver of the messages from the television set. Finally, it is important to point out that there is an assumption throughout this article that television is and can be a marvelous medium for all children. The challenge to parents, schools, government agencies, broadcasters, advertisers, and those professionals in the creative community is to capitalize on the potential of this medium and to assist our children to be wise consumers of it.




Hiebert, Ungurait and Bohn (1974) suggest that the various forms of communication are a series of actions or operations which are always in motion, directed toward a particular goal, and are a dynamic - not a static - process used to transfer meaning, transmit social values, and share experiences. Significantly, television as one of those dynamic forms of communication draws on the content legacy of its media cousins, such as radio, film, and especially newsprint. It was these early media forms that frequently ignored people of color, stereotyped them, or simply provided listeners, viewers and readers a collective world view that these groups were not equal to White Americans. Nowhere was this ignored or marginalized legacy of creative hegemony more pervasive than the early media depictions of Black family life. Many of the negative depictions of the family have endured for so long because some of the media image-makers still had racially marginalized beliefs about Black Americans. These beliefs were image holdovers and perceptions from African American life during slavery and into Reconstruction; perceptions of their behavior as a result of the economic and social constraints growing out of the "Jim Crow" laws; perceptions of the media portrayals during their migration from the southern rural states to the urban centers of the North; and perceptions growing out of their subsequent roles as victims of discrimination patterns in employment, housing, and education.


In this country people in the early theater, vaudeville, literature, music, song, radio, cinema, newspapers, and magazines often presented derogatory racial caricatures drawn from their own culturally encapsulated views of African Americans. In this context, a culturally encapsulated person is one who substitutes stereotypes for the real world, disregarding cultural variations among people, evading reality through ethnocentrism, and believing that his or her internalized value assumptions are best for society (Wrenn, 1985; Baruth and Manning, 1991). Although television as a medium was born into the media family later than some other forms of communication, the portrayals from the past easily emerged when pictures in the minds of those who created the images reflected little cultural understanding, reflected culturally encapsulated perspectives and reflected distorted views of Black family life.


Even today, with many conditions having improved for African Americans, language such as welfare mothers, teenage pregnancy, single mothers, public housing projects, and low I.Q. scores have become code words for some image-makers as they begin the creative process of portraying the Black family and its cultural life in America. It is important to point out that the image-makers referred to in the context of this article can and do represent many ethnic groups. While the group representation includes so-called majority and minority creative professionals, the psycho-social forces that drive their cultural perceptions of African American family life, while having different origins, frequently lead to the use of similar, culturally marginal portrayals. These code words have replaced the images that Noble (1969) describes as the portrayals of Black Americans in the media of the past. These media images were of a savage African, happy slave, superior athlete, perfect entertainer, and mental inferior.




African American family life has been a part of the commercial television programming landscape for a number of years. One of the early programs that aired in 1969 was "Julia," a nurse and single mother who had a small son. This show evoked some discussion as to whether or not Julia represented the Black family. A selection of the other shows that followed includes "Sanford and Son" (1972), "Good Times" (1974), "That's My Mama" (1974), "The Jeffersons" (1975), "The Cosby Show" (1985), "227" (1985), "Frank's Place" (1987), "South Central" (1995), and "Under One Roof" (1995). These shows have been replaced or joined by "Family Matters," "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "In The House," and "Minor Adjustments."


Each of these past and more recent shows presents to the young viewer a perspective about Black family life and a point of view from which he or she can relate to their own experiences. At the same time, some of these shows have the characteristic of portraying Black family life within a predominantly "comedy ghetto." Dates and Barlow (1990:261) argue that televised comedies help Americans adjust to the social order and, in their portrayal of African American images, these comedies pick up threads of the established pattern of White superiority and Black servitude and continue to weave them back into the popular culture. Other researchers have advanced the theory of why television decision-makers allow very few dramatic programs and a proliferation of comic ones for framing African American life. These researchers see this phenomenon as indisputably linked with previous eras of racial stereotyping in American popular culture. Moreover, they believe that the predominant reliance on the comedy format for representing African American life also restricts the themes and types of values open to exploration (Sklar, 1980; Matabane, 1988; Dates and Barlow, 1990).


Each of these family shows identified and some not mentioned have their special set of messages about Black family life. Three shows are discussed in order to highlight the variance in values, beliefs and images communicated to the viewer. "Good Times" was an example of an inner-city family who, while struggling against great odds, managed to stay together because of the love and support they provided each other. "Sanford and Son," while having very talented performers, tended to return to some of the early stereotypes of the lazy, crafty, and dishonest Black man. The image of the aunt in this show was especially interesting because of her preoccupation with emasculating Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx). This image of the emasculating Black woman was, incidentally, a common role in a number of shows. In contrast to the devoted but struggling parents in "Good Times" and the lazy, crafty, and dishonest image of"Sanford and Son," "The Cosby Show" portrayed an upper middle-class set of parents and children who represented family life in the broader society. "The Cosby Show" made references to Black culture, showed paintings by African American artists and provided a general attitude that focused on the human condition seen within the framework of a strong, proud African American (Dates and Barlow, 1990). Thus, what was communicated to children in both "Good Times" and the "Cosby Show" were Black families with proactive parents who taught solid values whether they were struggling or very affluent.


Sherryl Browne Graves (1993:179-181) provides a broad overview of the research on the portrayals of African Americans over the last ten years. Selected analysis of her research shows the following:


* The African American families featured as isolated from other families. These family role portrayals are such that the wife is more likely to be presented as being in conflict with the husband, and females in general are more likely to be presented as dominant in the family setting than is true with other family situation comedies.


* Among siblings, dominance conflicts are more frequent among African American sisters and brothers than among siblings of other groups.


* African Americans are more likely to be presented as both victims and suspects or perpetrators of violence.


* Television also presents African American characteristics as exhibiting specific behaviors or having particular personality characteristics. African American characters were more likely to dominate European Americans in situation comedies, whereas the reverse was true in crime dramas.


* African American characters in integrated shows were more likely to display socially valued characteristics and high social status symbols.


In a recent study, Merritt and Stroman (1993) note that more positive portrayals of Black families emerged in research on "Charlie and Company," "Cosby Show," and "227." Black families had both husband and wife present; the spouses interacted frequently, equally, and lovingly with each other; and children are treated with respect and taught achievement-oriented values. Nevertheless, one might conclude that minorities, including African Americans, are segregated in specific types of content and rarely engage in cross-ethnic interactions (Huston et al., 1992; Graves, 1993).




It is against this backdrop of the images of Black family life in various programs that we must consider a consistent finding that relates to the potential ability of this medium to influence the attitudes and values of African American children and youth. That is to say, there is a great deal of evidence that African American children and teenagers watch more television than their White counterparts, and they are more likely to evaluate television shows and ads as being more realistic and believable (Greenberg, 1972). In her study of third through sixth graders, Stroman (1984) found that 50 percent of the sample reported viewing television six or more hours per day, and only 2 percent of the sample reported viewing less than three hours per day. Significantly, the children in Stroman's study reported watching television before going to school in the morning, after school, during prime time (8-11 p.m.), and on Saturday. Lee and Browne (1995) found from their sample of 161 African American adolescent boys and girls that about 22 percent of them watched between three and five hours, 26 percent between five and seven hours, and 27 percent more than seven hours. Their data also revealed little parental control over television use.


The research shows that African American children frequently use television for the learning of new facts or information. In one study, it was found that 50 percent of the sample reported watching television so they could learn how different people behave, talk, dress, and look (Greenberg and Atkin, 1978; Stroman, 1984). In addition, the evidence suggests that in the process of imitating the behavior of television characters, Black children also learn or acquire behaviors from television (Stroman, 1984). Clearly, when the learned behaviors are positive portrayals of Black family life, the child gains pro-social messages and values from the content. On the other hand, one can also assume that misrepresented or destructive images can produce undesirable attitudes and behaviors in the developing child.


Bales (1986) offers some explanation as to why African Americans generally might be drawn to television. Among the reasons are the following: (1) television as the last medium to be developed did not inherit the degree of hostility felt by Blacks toward established media, especially print; (2) television's arrival during the burgeoning of integration made Blacks curious about White society as portrayed on television; and (3) because of societal prejudices and limited economic means, Blacks resorted to television because of their leisure outlets were relatively limited.


Today, two- to five-year-old children of the general population watch an average of 28 hours of television per week, and those in the six- to eleven-year-old group watch over 26 hours per week. Given what seems to be the proclivity of African American children and youth for watching television, this means that a large number of them are spending a great many hours attending to both the positive and negative images of Black life, and learning from them.


Social learning theory would suggest that Black children learn from the models on television. It is quite possible, argues Abelman (1989), that the same social learning theories which have led to testable propositions regarding learning of aggression and sex role expectations from television would be applicable to learning of family roles, attitudes and behaviors. The central propositions on which this theory is based are that (a) children can and do learn behaviors through observation of models who perform such behaviors, without direct reinforcement, and (b) children try to maximize benefits to themselves, usually in the form of reinforcement for imitating or identifying with a model (Bandura, 1969; Adelman, 1989).




The study of the African American family, even without the variables of television, the child, and the socialization process, has always presented a special challenge to social scientists. Part of that challenge is housed in the culture and experiences of the Black family in the past as well as the continuing socio-psychological pressure on the members of this institution in the present. Thus, the complexity of the research enterprise is compounded when we attempt to study the effects of the images of Black family life on television, and the implications for shaping the values, attitudes and beliefs during the socialization process.


If we are to minimize the research and evaluation complexity, one of the first tasks is to understand the special nature and quality of each of the four variables (the child, family, portrayal, and socialization). While each variable is important, the factors that cause the child to identify with and embrace or reject a portrayal of Black family life become crucial. Research must pursue how children make sense of these portrayals and the variables that mediate their perceptions. In addition, research designs will need to turn some attention to the process by which these portrayals alter same-group or other-group attitudes (Graves, 1993).


It is clear that both qualitative and quantitative research approaches must be employed in order to understand African American culture and beliefs. The utilization of both research approaches is important in exploring questions about children and socialization because the use of the triangulation technique will provide for broader opportunities to control the large number of variables in the cultural content of the family (Allen, 1993). The application of several research techniques is especially useful in controlling the many developmental and attitudinal changes taking place in the African American child.


At the core of conducting research into African American family life and child socialization is not only the challenge to understand the special nature of relevant variables, but also to have a research premise that employs methodologies committed to an "emic" and not an "etic" approach. An emic approach would study the African American family and the other variables from within the cultural context, while the etic approach would examine these factors from outside (Hymes, 1964). The point in making this argument is to remove, as much as possible, the social psychological distance between the researcher and the cultural attributes of the family and the child. The concept of social psychological distance is important here because when it is great, either participant in the research process may consciously or unconsciously resort to stereotyping in order to develop a basis for understanding the other person (Blocher, 1987).


The subtlety of identifying the source of the acceptance or rejection of the family portrayal on a show is only meaningful when one can really become submerged in the culture and subculture of a particular family unit. Thus, the research model should be designed not only to capture the broad demographic picture of a family, but also their attitudes toward the quality of their family life, their childrearing patterns, and the concepts held by the family about their own racial identity. These and other factors should also be considered within the framework of the child's perception of them.


Broadly speaking, there is a need to understand the potential of television to influence attitudes and behavior by utilizing a holistic research perspective. This means that a researcher must add into the socialization model knowledge about the power of the sight, sound, tone, and mood of the programs in order to ascertain what behaviors, attitudes, performers, and the formal features of the medium are highlighting for the child. Such holistic designs call for multidimensional emic-driven paradigms that not only measure, but also identify causal links between the child and what he or she is learning from the television content. Bronfenbrenner (1978) suggests that some research efforts are characterized by experimental designs that are primarily statistical rather than scientific; that is, these designs enable us to predict the concomitants of certain combinations of conditions, but not to understand the causal connections that produce the observed effects. In research on Black families, television and child socialization, this pitfall must be avoided.




The institution of the African American family and the children who are a part of it have a long tradition of survival against great odds. It is a tradition of success and failures, of great accomplishments and some disappointments. As people continue to make technical advancements in a multimedia world, there is every reason to assume that the media images of American families in general, and Black family life in particular, will find their way into the homes of African American children. Research paradigms that will provide knowledge about the social learning and modeling from the images created by television today, will enable social scientists to assist African American children and their families to be wise consumers of the images of their culture presented in the new technologies of tomorrow.




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1989 "A comparison of Black and White Families as portrayed on religious and secular television programs." Journal of Black Studies 20(I): 60-79.


Allen, R.


1993 "Children and television: Images in a changing sociocultural world." Pp. 154-176 in G.L. Berry and J.K. Asamen (eds.), Conceptual Models of An African American Belief System: A Program of Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


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