What is the relationship between how African American children are depicted in popular media and the ways in which black children in the United States are often considered prone to violence and criminality? Children of color are often discussed through a “problem frame” such as crime, drugs, urbanization, poverty, or lack of education. A great deal of narrative media frame the black child within socio-economic “problems” or as a consequence of a lack of education, or of institutional racism.1 Research tends to discuss African American children in similar ways, in works like Anna Mae Duane’s Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim and in Catherine K. Yim, et al., The School to Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform.2 All of these works are valuable and function in important ways to help illustrate real conditions and real issues that affect children of color. What is problematic, however, is the almost singular way that American culture limits popular culture depictions of black children to these stereotypes. The film industry echoes this limiting framework. As an industry, Hollywood has a long history of institutional racism and the elision of both people of color and cultural context. It is well known that the industry tends to cast white actors to play a variety of different ethnicities, and yet it is also clearly obvious that the Hollywood industry also works in these same ways to limit its depictions of black children.
In films about and for children, there is very little representation beyond the white child protagonist. The few African American children who star in Hollywood films are often positioned within contexts of crime, drugs, urbanization, poverty, or gangs, which tends to reinforce, not challenge, historically stereotypical beliefs about African Americans. In popular films such as Fresh (1994), Precious (2009), and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) black children are seen exclusively framed within these types of social problems. These depictions only allow the viewer to see black children negatively or as children who are not a part of American childhood, but as Other. In popular mainstream film, there are very few positive images of black children. Such a limiting view translates into troubling real world beliefs about children of color.
While television programming presents much more diverse and positive images of black children today than ever in its history, both the news media and Hollywood films continue to depict African American children as inherently violent and less innocent than white children. The cases of Jordon Brown (2009) and Lionel Tate (1999) are examples of the ways the news media presents children who commit crimes differently based on race.3 Almost all of the media coverage raised the notion of Brown’s inherent innocence and questioned what could have happened to "cause him" to commit murder because something must have happened—-little white boys do not kill people. Except that they do. According to a study by William Mingus and Bradley Zopf, the perpetrator’s race dictates the media response: “prominence [is] given to the race of the perpetrator when the shooter is anything but white and the deliberate omission of race in discussions of white shooters” suggests media bias that works to naturalize the notion that black children (and adults) are “prone” to violence. Lionel Tate, at age 12, was never depicted in the media as a “child” but instead as an “adolescent.” He was presented as an adult who, because of his size, knew what he was doing. The majority of the media stories about Tate never mentioned childhood innocence.
We see the real world effects of the ways black children are depicted in popular media when they are confronted by authority figures. In November, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by Cleveland, Ohio, police while he was playing with a toy gun in a park. The officers did not once speak to the boy, but upon arrival shot him as they exited their police car. In December of 2015, a 14-year-old African American boy who had a pellet gun was shot by Jacksonville, Florida, police. The Jacksonville officer took 6 shots at the boy, but mercifully only one hit the child and only in the leg. In April, 2016, Baltimore police shot (but did not kill) a 13 year old African American boy who had a toy BB gun. On July 26th, 2017, in Houston, Texas, a 20-year-old black male name Marlin Gipson was arrested for mowing lawns and passing out business cards for his lawn mowing business in his own neighborhood. The officers then followed Marlin and his younger brothers home, continuing their harassment, and released their dog on the Marlin for “resisting arrest,” causing damage to his arm. The encounter also cost Marlin his job at Walmart when his boss learned he’d had “an encounter with police.”4 And on May 1, 2017, 15-year-old, unarmed, Jordan Edwards was shot dead in the passenger seat of a car by a white Balch Springs, Texas, police officer. These cases illustrate how there is no presumption of childhood innocence for black children. Rather, these incidents demonstrate that the opposite is true: for black children and teens, particularly black male children, there is no assumption of childhood, or innocence, period. And in encounters with authority, these assumptions can have deadly consequences.
While television news media reports do not depict black children accurately or fairly, there are numerous positive portrayals within television programming— for instance, the sit-coms “The Cosby Show” (1984-1992) and more recently “Blackish” (ABC 2014- )—and offer a wide variety of significant and complex roles for black children. In contrast, the Hollywood film “dream machine” is completely devoid of meaningful black child protagonists. In Hollywood films, children in danger, children on a quest, children who save the world are exclusively cast white: Harry Potter, Matilda, Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, Disney’s Tomorrowland, and the Twilight saga, to name just a few. The white child is always the hero-savior and while an ensemble cast may feature an African American child character, he or she offers minimal contribution to the adventure and rarely saves the day. Conquest, coming of age, intellectual maturity, and discovery in Hollywood film is reserved solely for the white child.
There is some hope for change, however. Recent films like Dope (2015) and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) feature black boys who are not framed by social problems, but who seek college and spend their time making short films. They are complex characters that offer a counter-narrative to the standard depiction of black youth, something that is sorely needed. We need many more films like these to help reverse the stereotypes about African American children. Perhaps if there were more black child protagonists, a black Harry Potter or Matilda, or a black child lead in a Neverending Story or an Ender’s Game type of film, the popular discourse that contributes to the unfounded, irrational, and deadly suspicion of black children could finally change. Black children deserve the same assumption of childness and innocence afforded to white children. By casting black children in protagonist roles, Hollywood could contribute significantly to lessening the suspicion of young black children and saving lives.
“11 year old Charged as an Adult?” CBS News, 24 February 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6leA-eD5GY
Aguayo, Terry. “Youth who Killed at 12 will return to prison, but not for life,” New York Times 2 March 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/02/national/02tate.html?_r=0
Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing African American Childhood from
Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
Blades, Lincoln A. “Study Reveals White Adults Associate Black Kids as Young as 5 with Criminality. The Grio February 11, 2016
Canedy, Dana. “Boy Convicted of Murder in Wrestling Death,” New York Times 26 January 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/26/us/boy-convicted-of-murder-in-wrestling-death.html;
Canning, Andrea and Maggie Burbank, “Jordan Brown Murder Case Takes Emotional Toll,” ABC News, 28 April 2010. http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/jordan-brown-murder-case-12-year-adult/story?id=10288704&page=2.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Mingus, William and Bradley Zopf. “White Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry: the racial project in explaining mass shootings.” Social Thought and Research vol. 31, 2010, pp. 57-77.
Olson, Debbie. Black Children in Hollywood Cinema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Scolforc, Marc. "Teen Gets New Hearing in Case of Woman's Killing." http://www.wtae.com/news/pa-supreme-court-hears-case-of-boy-11-charged-with-pregnant-womans-murder/24938720
1. See also Jawanza Kunjufu Developing Positive Self-Image & Discipline in Black Children (1984) and Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys (2004); Michael Porter Kill Them Before They Grow: Misdiagnosis of African American Boys in the Classroom (1998); Baruti K. Kafele Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life (2009).
2. Wilma King, African American Childhoods: Historical Perspectives from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Anna Mae Duane, Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), Catherine K. Yim, Daniel J. Losen, and Damon T. Hewitt, The School to Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform, (New York: NYU Press, 2010).
3. On Friday, Feb 26, 2009, a small-town, 11 year old white boy from Pennsylvania named Jordan Brown walked into his father’s bedroom and shot his father’s pregnant fiancé, Kenzi Houk, in the head with a shotgun, killing both her and her unborn son. He was charged as a juvenile. On the night of July 28th, 1999, twelve year old African American Lionel Tate was at his home playing with his six year old cousin, Tiffany Eunick. Lionel, an avid Professional Wresting Fan (WWE [previously WWF]), alerted his mother a short time later that Tiffany was not breathing. Tiffany would be pronounced dead not long after from severe internal injuries. Tate told the police that he was doing “wrestling moves” with Tiffany and that he had held her in a chokehold, but that he fell, and she hit her head. Tate is the youngest person in the history of the United States to be sentenced to life in prison.