Challenging How the Media Portrays Young Men and Boys of Color

By Jeff Joseph, National Manager of Extended Learning Time Initiatives

Mentoring Moment


As I watch footage from Ferguson, Missouri on the evening news, my 13-year-old brother walks into the living room and directs his attention to the broadcast.  Images of unrest flood the television screen─ seemingly distraught and impoverished Black men and women, uniformed White male police officers, and a well-spoken, White female news anchor in professional attire; a ticker at the bottom of the screen details professional sports updates, highlighting Lebron James’ return to Cleveland.

The focus of my thoughts at that moment: “As a young male of color, what messages are my brother receiving from this media transmission? What impact do these messages have on his conception of the world and of himself?” 

According to researchers, there is an undeniable link between media portrayals of Black, Hispanic, and Native American males and their respective life chances. In a society where the average individual consumes roughly 15 hours of media each day, the implications of this finding are deeply significant as the content conveyed through media helps shape public perceptions and attitudes, especially in relation to cognitive and behavioral expectations. 

A report from President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force shares the following context: 

  • “Among youth ages 10 to 24, homicide is the leading cause of death for Black males and also among the leading causes of death for Hispanics and AIANs [American Indians and Alaska Natives].”
  • “In 2012, Black males were six times more likely to be imprisoned than White males. Hispanic males were two and half times more likely.”

To quote our Commander-in-Chief, "We become numb to these statistics." Part of the danger tied to becoming numb is the unconscious mistaking of data as representative of natural and inevitable life circumstances, enabling biased interpretation to dictate societal interactions. The manifestation—a young male of color begins to believe he will likely be dead, or in jail by his mid-twenties. 

Statistics do not tell complete stories; as educators and social advocates, we must empower our young men of color to rewrite and effectively recount their narrative. 

Bearing in mind this call to action, I proudly serve on City Year’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, launched in June 2014. Part of my committee’s charge involves exploring the organization’s ability to:

  • actively provide counter examples to the distorted portrayal of men of color in the media through AmeriCorp member recruitment, alumni and corporate partner engagement, etc., and
  • leverage extended learning time to promote media literacy resources to students and families across the network. 

Though media alone isn’t responsible for the disparaging life outcomes of males of color in this country, it certainly fuels a vicious cycle that must be challenged and disrupted.

“I am dedicated to working towards the day when all Michael Brown’s, and indeed all people, share the same opportunities, protections and supports.” ─ Michael Brown, CEO and Co-Founder of City Year, Inc.

This is our commitment ─ this is Ubuntu in action. 

I am My Brother’s Keeper.

This is the first in a three-part blog series on My Brother’s Keeper. Check back later this month for parts two and three and learn how the City of Boston and Boston public schools are joining the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. 

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