10/28/2014 04:41 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Media Often Depicts Black Youth as Criminals, and Rarely as Heroes

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A colleague of mine recently shared a story about observing an elementary school teacher talking with some Black boys in her class about a book they were reading. The topic of the conversation was "is it better to be loved or feared?" These young boys not only could relate to this question, but they engaged in a vigorous debate about it. My colleague, who is white, said that when she posed that question to her own children, they were baffled by it and couldn't grasp why anyone would even entertain such a seemingly contradictory notion. The fact that the Black students could jump right into an animated conversation about the merits of being feared -- that they understood this as an "identity" option -- shows just how deeply engrained negative stereotypes about Black males are, and how early kids are attuned to them.

The events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri reflect how little progress we've made in shifting deeply entrenched stereotypes about young, Black males -- especially, but not exclusively, young men living in low-income, urban areas.

The way we speak about these boys is stuck, quite firmly, in deficit-mode -- we point out homicide rates, dropout rates, incarceration rates, and a litany of other statistics that feed into a grim picture. This gets coupled with nonstop media accounts of Black youth mostly as criminals, sometimes as victims, but almost never as heroes. Those who do receive positive recognition are so few and far between that we're forced to view them as exceptional.

There's now a wealth of evidence showing how these negative stereotypes can implicitly influence people's behavior, even for those who don't personally believe them. And the real-world consequences of unconscious stereotypes can be devastating and deadly -- from differential treatment of Black patients (even infants), to harsher school discipline practices, and of course, even to police shootings.

Change is long overdue. But I'm not entirely convinced that we're considering the full range of changes that need to take place. One common approach centers on trying to "fix the problem." In this scenario Black boys are the "problem" who need fixing. It should go without saying that this only serves to further substantiate negative stereotypes about our boys.

Another approach, reflected in the recent, federal "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, emphasizes the development of "policy, programs, and partnerships" to create opportunities to help Black males succeed. While on the surface this approach appears to have great merit, and resources such as these are essential, it still does very little to change the underlying narrative.

In research my colleagues and I have conducted, we find that Black male teens living in impoverished, urban communities value achievement and responsibility, have positive attitudes towards school and beliefs about their future -- and that these beliefs are connected to involvement in positive activities like school clubs and student government, and avoidance of delinquency and criminality. Also, boys who feel strong connections to their culture are less likely to have symptoms of depression, and are better able to cope with stress stemming from family and economic instability and discrimination.

But these kinds of statistics rarely receive attention.

For true, meaningful change to take place, we need to tell a new narrative about Black boys. A narrative that in fact, is the reality for so many of our boys, but not one with which they have an opportunity to identify or be identified.

We need to reinforce a narrative that portrays them as thriving contributors to their communities. A narrative that recognizes their rich diversity of experiences. A narrative that celebrates and encourages Black males' connections to and expressions of their cultural heritage. One that highlights that just like any other child, Black youth have the desire to be viewed as competent, caring, and compassionate members of society.

Yes, we need people -- particularly law enforcement officials, legal system employees, educators, and medical professionals -- to work on actively recognizing and trying to change their implicit biases, especially in the face of evidence showing how effective this can be. We also need to harness the assets in youths' daily lives (schools, families, youth programs) by better understanding how, when, and why these settings promote positive outcomes.

But at the same time, we need to work tirelessly on changing the narrative that informs these explicit stereotypes from one steeped in insidious images of criminality and violence, to one which emphasizes Black male youths' capacity for positive development and thriving, even in the face of challenges. It isn't fair to ask youth to bear the brunt of the responsibility by encouraging them to "rise above" and see themselves beyond society's stereotypes of them.

This means, in part, widely publicizing the findings of scholars who are unpacking and resisting negative stereotypes about Black boys and organizations that normalize a high set of standards for all youth so that a revised narrative of possibility, engagement, and manhood becomes the expectation rather than the exception. Without this kind of intensive, intentional action, the implicit association between "Black male" and "danger" or "criminal" or "failure" will persist.