In her article “Black Criminal Sterotypes and Racial Profiling” for the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Kelly Welch writes “The racial stereotyping of criminals has been an enduring and unfortunate feature of American culture. However, following the civil rights movement, the linkage between Blacks and crime was galvanized. The stereotyping of Blacks as criminals is so pervasive throughout society that ‘criminal predator’ is used as a euphemism for ‘young Black male.’”
In a recent HuffPost Live roundtable, experts discussed the problematic representation of Black people in film and media.
“You can take this all the way back to ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,'” Ya’Ke Smith, a film professor at the University of Texas, said in the discussion. “Which is a classic. But you have a gigolo, sort of a prostitute…you have all these characters working against the law, doing criminal things. If those were African-American characters, this tale would be very different.”
Black people are not able to play criminals in films the way that actors of other races are because of the social sigma that surrounds color and crime.
“In American society, a prevalent representation of crime is that it is overwhelmingly committed by young Black men,” wrote Welch. “Subsequently, the familiarity many Americans have with the image of a young Black male as a violent and menacing street thug is fueled and perpetuated by typifications everywhere.”
The panelists argued that even some of the society’s most beloved movies play into these stereotypes, sometimes without us realizing it.
“Every writer, every creative person, every artist is always fighting against stereotypes,” screen writer Gregory Howard told HuffPost. “What you have in Hollywood is unfortunately artistic laziness. People sit on their asses and just [say] ‘Well, I’m not going to put the effort in to find some humanity in Ray Brown. Ray Brown is a crackhead and a criminal, and there he is.'”
This one dimensional portrayal of Black characters on an incredibly powerful medium such as film only contributes to the now almost unconscious assumptions that society seems to have about Black people and crime.