Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys: A Social Science Literature Review


This social science review centers on the topic of how communications in the broadest sense impacts black male achievement. It is no exaggeration to say that tens (or hundreds) of thousands of pages have been written on the topic over the course of several generations. This review is intended to offer communicators on related issues, who come to the review with a wide range of different backgrounds and depth of knowledge on the topic, a digestible overview. What have social scientists studied and learned, particularly in the last decade, about how communications have impacted achievement of black males, and could impact it for the better? A range of longer reviews, including book-length studies, are available and have informed this piece — but The Opportunity Agenda would like to offer its colleagues and the field a user-friendly summary that captures the essence of what is known, and what is not known, in a very usable format.

What is known is often discouraging, as a wide range of studies, analyses, and bodies of evidence point to persistent and destructive biases regarding the public image of black males, and ongoing forces that perpetuate the creation of these images. Equally frustrating is the fact that these patterns, while often very familiar to insiders, are more or less invisible to the general public, and seem implausible or exaggerated to them even when pointed out (an observation based on the authors’ own research experience on related topics). Other problems widely known to insiders but mostly “invisible” to the public at large include the well-documented and nearly universal tendency of Americans to have unconscious patterns of bias against African Americans in general and black males in particular, as well as the psychological and sociological costs that these patterns exact on black males. In short, it seems very important that the nature of these patterns of images, their causes, their effects, and their potential antidotes, should in some sense be available “out there.”

The review focuses on the core problem as social scientists have described it — including aspects that are more robustly or more thinly addressed in the literature — as well as a discussion of the some of the more troubling dilemmas and dynamics that confront communicators.

Where possible, this review also points out the “good news” in the literature, including psychology experiments that look at tasks and contexts that can reduce bias. Despite the lack of “silver bullets,” the literature does offer some useful lessons that can guide communicators’ efforts going forward.

Please note that the social science literature review is just one piece of a larger effort. It is intended to provide communicators with an overview of what is known (or not known) about the topic via the social sciences, and to inform future stages of the project; it is those later stages that will focus more on action steps going forward.


A literature review is an overview of the published scholarship on a particular topic. In this case the topic is what social scientists know about how and why discourse (especially public and media discourse) shapes perceptions of black men and boys – and the consequences of these perceptions. The review has also sought out findings that offer evidence about how to talk about black men and boys and achievement in ways that can promote engagement, understanding, and progress in this area.

The authors of the review relied on four complementary approaches to identifying and selecting relevant and reliable source materials:

  • Recommendations from a variety of experts about important, influential works;
  • Citations and references in high-profile, popular works;
  • Citations in well-regarded, specialized scholarly works (that is, studies and analyses that are accepted and cited by other researchers in the  field);
  • Our own expertise as academic reviewers and  researchers.

The review focuses primarily on findings for which scholars have offered experimental or documentary evidence, or around which scholars in the field have reached a strong consensus. The selection of work is also based on its evident usability, and its potential to help a variety of stakeholders identify the most prevalent and malignant frames and adapt a set of best practices for reshaping them.

A select bibliography is offered for readers who may want to examine relevant research in more detail.

Even a relatively lengthy overview of such a vast field inevitably omits many studies, including important ones, from discussion. We hope, on the other hand, that the review does touch on the most important themes that shape current scholarly perspectives.


This research was authored by Topos Partnership with consultation from Janet Dewart Bell and Eleni Delimpaltadaki Janis of The Opportunity Agenda, who contributed to the design and analysis of the research and edited the report. Christopher Moore designed the report. Jill Bailin, Judi Lerman, and Loren Siegel also assisted in the editing of the report.

The Opportunity Agenda’s research on black men and boys is funded by the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement. The statements made and views expressed are those of The Opportunity Agenda.

Our sincerest gratitude goes out to the advisory committee, who consulted on this research: Bryonn Bain,Robert Entman, Fanon Hill, Dori Maynard, Alexis McGill Johnson, Rashid Shabazz, Calvin Sims, Kamal Sinclair, Alvin Starks, Albert Sykes, Sharon Toomer, Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant, Cheo Tyehimba Taylor, and Hank Willis Thomas. Special thanks to Steve DuBois, who coordinated the committee.

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