Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on
Attitudes Toward African-Americans
by Laura Green
Virginia Commonwealth University
As human beings, we naturally evaluate everything
we come in contact with. We especially try to gain insight and direction
from our evaluations of other people. Stereotypes are "cognitive
structures that contain the perceiver's knowledge, beliefs, and
expectations about human groups" (Peffley et al., 1997, p. 31). These
cognitive constructs are often created out of a kernel of truth and then
distorted beyond reality (Hoffmann, 1986). Racial stereotypes are
constructed beliefs that all members of the same race share given
characteristics. These attributed characteristics are usually negative
This paper will identify seven historical racial stereotypes of
African-Americans and demonstrate that many of these distorted images
still exist in society today. Additionally, strategies for intervention
and the implications of this exploration into racial stereotypes will be
Description of the Problem
The racial stereotypes of early American history had a significant role
in shaping attitudes toward African-Americans during that time. Images of
the Sambo, Jim Crow, the Savage, Mammy, Aunt Jemimah, Sapphire, and
Jezebelle may not be as powerful today, yet they are still alive.
One of the most enduring stereotypes in American history is that of the
Sambo (Boskin, 1986). This pervasive image of a simple-minded, docile
black man dates back at least as far as the colonization of America. The
Sambo stereotype flourished during the reign of slavery in the United
States. In fact, the notion of the "happy slave" is the core of the Sambo
caricature. White slave owners molded African-American males, as a whole,
into this image of a jolly, overgrown child who was happy to serve his
master. However, the Sambo was seen as naturally lazy and therefore
reliant upon his master for direction. In this way, the institution of
slavery was justified. Bishop Wipple's Southern Diary, 1834-1844, is
evidence of this justification of slavery, "They seem a happy race of
beings and if you did not know it you would never imagine that they were
slaves" (Boskin, 1989, p. 42). However, it was not only slave owners who
adopted the Sambo stereotype (Boskin, 1989). Although Sambo was born out
of a defense for slavery, it extended far beyond these bounds. It is
essential to realize the vast scope of this stereotype. It was transmitted
through music titles and lyrics, folk sayings, literature, children's
stories and games, postcards, restaurant names and menus, and thousands of
artifacts (Goings, 1994). White women, men and children across the country
embraced the image of the fat, wide-eyed, grinning black man. It was
perpetuated over and over, shaping enduring attitudes toward
African-Americans for centuries. In fact, "a stereotype may be so
consistently and authoritatively transmitted in each generation from
parent to child that it seems almost a biological fact" (Boskin, 1986, p.
The stereotyping of African-Americans was brought to the theatrical
stage with the advent of the blackface minstrel (Engle, 1978). Beginning
in the early 19th century, white performers darkened their faces with
burnt cork, painted grotesquely exaggerated white mouths over their own,
donned woolly black wigs and took the stage to entertain society. The
character they created was Jim Crow. This "city dandy" was the northern
counterpart to the southern "plantation darky," the Sambo (Engle, 1978 p.
Performer T.D. Rice is the acknowledged "originator" of the American
blackface minstrelsy. His inspiration for the famous minstrel
dance-and-comedy routine was an old, crippled, black man dressed in rags,
whom he saw dancing in the street (Engle, 1978). During that time, a law
prohibited African-Americans from dancing because it was said to be
"crossing your feet against the lord" (Hoffmann, 1986, video). As an
accommodation to this law, African-Americans developed a shuffling dance
in which their feet never left the ground. The physically impaired man
Rice saw dancing in this way became the prototype for early minstrelsy
(Engle 1978). In 1830, when "Daddy" Rice performed this same dance,
"...the effect was electric..." (Bean et al., 1996, p. 7). White actors
throughout the north began performing "the Jim Crow" to enormous crowds,
as noted by a New York newspaper. "Entering the theater, we found it
crammed from pit to dome..." (Engle, 1978, p. xiv). This popularity
continued, and at the height of the minstrel era, the decades preceding
and following the Civil War, there were at least 30 full-time blackface
minstrel companies performing across the nation (Engle, 1978).
The "foppish" black caricature, Jim Crow, became the image of the black
man in the mind of the white western world (Engle, 1978). This image was
even more powerful in the north and west because many people never had
come into contact with African-American individuals. It has been argued
that "[t]he image of the minstrel clown has been the most persistent and
influential image of blacks in American history" (Engle, 1978, p. xiv).
Words from the folk song "Jim Crow," published by E. Riley in 1830,
further demonstrate the transmission of this stereotype of
African-Americans to society: "I'm a full blooded niggar, ob de real ole
stock, and wid my head and shoulder I can split a horse block. Weel about
and turn about and do jis so, eb'ry time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow"
(Bean et al., 1997, p. 11).
The method of representing African-Americans as "shuffling and
drawling, cracking and dancing, wisecracking and high stepping" buffoons
evolved over time (Engle, 1978, p. xiv). Self-effacing African-American
actors began to play these parts both on the stage and in movies. Bert
Williams was a popular African-American artist who performed this
stereotype for white society. The response was also wildly enthusiastic as
26 million Americans went to the movies to see Al Jolson in the "Jazz
Singer" (Boskin 1986).
Movies were, and still are, a powerful medium for the transmission of
stereotypes. Early silent movies such as "The Wooing and Wedding of a
Coon" in 1904, "The Slave" in 1905, "The Sambo Series" 1909-1911 and "The
Nigger" in 1915 offered existing stereotypes through a fascinating new
medium (Boskin, 1986). The premiere of "Birth of a Nation" during the
reconstruction period in 1915 marked the change in emphasis from the happy
Sambo and the pretentious and inept Jim Crow stereotypes to that of the
Savage. In this D.W. Griffith film, the Ku Klux Klan tames the terrifying,
savage African-American through lynching. Following emancipation, the
image of the threatening brute from the "Dark Continent" was revitalized.
Acts of racial violence were justified and encouraged through the emphasis
on this stereotype of the Savage. The urgent message to whites was, we
must put blacks in their place or else (Boskin, 1986).
Old themes about African-Americans began to well up in the face of the
perceived threat. Beliefs that blacks were "mentally inferior, physically
and culturally unevolved, and apelike in appearance" (Plous &
Williams, 1995, p. 795) were supported by prominent white figures like
Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson. Theodore Roosevelt
publicly stated that "As a race and in the mass [the Negroes] are
altogether inferior to whites" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 796). The
ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica published in 1884 stated
authoritatively that "...the African race occupied the lowest position of
the evolutionary scale, thus affording the best material for the
comparative study of the highest anthropoids and the human species" (Plous
& Williams, 1995, p. 795). This idea of African-Americans as apelike
savages was exceptionally pervasive. For example, in 1906, the New York
Zoological Park featured an exhibit with an African-American man and a
chimpanzee. Several years later, the Ringling Brothers Circus exhibited
"the monkey man," a black man was caged with a female chimpanzee that had
been trained to wash clothes and hang them on a line (Plous &
Scientific studies were conducted to establish the proper place of the
African-American in society. Scientists conducted tests and measurements
and concluded that blacks were savages for the following reasons: "(a) The
abnormal length of the arm...; (b) weight of brain... [Negro's] 35 ounces,
gorilla 20 ounces, average European 45 ounces; (c) short flat snub nose;
(d) thick protruding lips; (e) exceedingly thick cranium; (f) short, black
hair, eccentricity elliptical or almost flat in sections, and distinctly
woolly; and (g) thick epidermis" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 796). In
addition to these presumed anatomical differences, African-Americans were
thought to be far less sensitive to pain than whites. For example, black
women were thought to experience little pain with childbirth and "...bear
cutting with nearly...as much impunity as dogs and rabbits" (Plous &
Williams, 1995, p. 796). These stereotypes of the animal-like savage were
used to rationalize the harsh treatment of slaves during slavery as well
as the murder, torture and oppression of African-Americans following
emancipation. However, it can be argued that this stereotype still exists
There were four stereotypes for female African-Americans, the Mammy,
Aunt Jemimah, Sapphire, and Jezebelle. The most enduring of these is the
Mammy. Although this stereotype originated in the South, it eventually
permeated every region. As with the Sambo, the Mammy stereotype arose as a
justification of slavery.
The Mammy was a large, independent woman with pitch-black skin and
shining white teeth (Jewell, 1993). She wore a drab calico dress and head
scarf and lived to serve her master and mistress. The Mammy understood the
value of the white lifestyle. The stereotype suggests that she raised the
"massa's" children and loved them dearly, even more than her own. Her
tendency to give advice to her mistress was seen as harmless and humorous.
Although she treated whites with respect, the Mammy was a tyrant in her
own family. She dominated her children and husband, the Sambo, with her
temper. This image of the Mammy as the controller of the African-American
male, was used as further evidence of his inferiority to whites (Jewell,
Because Mammy was masculine in her looks and temperament, she was not
seen as a sexual being or threat to white women (Jewell, 1993). This
obese, matronly figure with her ample bosom and behind was the antithesis
of the European standard of beauty. Because she was non-threatening to
whites, Mammy was considered "...as American as apple pie" (Jewell, 1993,
The Mammy stereotype was presented to the public in literature and
movies. Possibly the most outstanding example is the Mammy role played by
Hattie McDaniel in "Gone with the Wind" (Goings, 1994). The book,
published in 1936 by Margaret Mitchell, helped to keep the mythical past
of African-Americans in the old South alive. The large number of people
whose attitudes were shaped by this portrayal is demonstrated through its
phenomenal sales record. The Bible is the only book that rivals "Gone with
the Wind" in total sales. Additionally, the movie version remains one of
the biggest box-office successes in history. Mitchell's characters
simultaneously won the hearts of Americans and fixed stereotypes of
African-Americans in their minds (Goings, 1994).
The stereotype of Aunt Jemimah evolved out of the Mammy image (Jewell,
1993). She differs from Mammy in that her duties were restricted to
cooking. It was through Aunt Jemimah that the association of the
African-American woman with domestic work, especially cooking, became
fixed in the minds of society. As a result, hundreds of Aunt Jemimah
collectibles found their way into the American kitchens. These black
collectibles included grocery list holders, salt and pepper shakers, spoon
holders, stovetop sets, flour scoops, spatulas, mixing bowls, match
holders, teapots, hot-pad holders, and much more (Goings, 1994). Perhaps
Aunt Jemimah's most famous image is in the pancake advertisement campaign.
In St. Joseph, Mo., in 1889, Chris Rutt chose "Aunt Jemimah" as the name
for his new self-rising pancake mix, because "it just naturally made me
think of good cooking." Obviously, others agreed because the campaign was
an instant success. Rutt sold his company to Davis Milling Co., which
chose Nancy Green as the Aunt Jemimah products spokesperson. This
character developed a loyal following of both blacks and whites. To these
people, Aunt Jemimah had become reality. Her face still can be found on
the pancake boxes today. Although her image has changed slightly, the
stereotype lives on (Goings, 1994).
Sapphire was a stereotype solidified through the hit show "Amos 'n'
Andy" (Jewell, 1993). This profoundly popular series began on the radio in
1926 and developed into a television series, ending in the 1950s (Boskin,
1986). This cartoon show depicted the Sapphire character as a bossy,
headstrong woman who was engaged in an ongoing verbal battle with her
husband, Kingfish (Jewell, 1993). Sapphire possessed the emotional makeup
of the Mammy and Aunt Jemimah combined. Her fierce independence and
cantankerous nature placed her in the role of matriarch. She dominated her
foolish husband by emasculating him with verbal put-downs. This stereotype
was immensely humorous to white Americans. Her outrageous "...hand on the
hip, finger-pointing style..." helped carry this show through 4,000
episodes before it was terminated due to its negative racial content
(Jewell, 1993, p. 45).
The final female stereotype is Jezebelle, the harlot. This image of the
"bad Black girl" represented the undeniable sexual side of
African-American women (Jewell, 1993). The traditional Jezebelle was a
light-skinned, slender Mulatto girl with long straight hair and small
features. She more closely resembled the European ideal for beauty than
any pre-existing images. Where as the Mammy, Aunt Jemimah and Sapphire
were decidedly asexual images, this stereotype was immensely attractive to
white males. The creation of the hyper-sexual seductress Jezebelle served
to absolve white males of responsibility in the sexual abuse and rape of
African-American women. Black women in such cases were said to be "askin'
for it" (Goings, 1994, p. 67).
Although much has changed since the days of Sambo, Jim Crow, the
Savage, Mammy, Aunt Jemimah, Sapphire and Jezebelle, it can be argued
convincingly that similar stereotypes of African-Americans exist in 1998.
Author Joseph Boskin states that "...there should be little doubt that
aspects of Sambo live on in the White mind and show through the crevices
of American culture in subtle and sophisticated ways" (Boskin, 1986, p.
15). However, the predominant modern stereotypes are the violent, brutish
African-American male and the dominant, lazy African-American female - the
Welfare Mother (Peffley Hurwitz & Sniderman, 1997). Recent research
has shown that whites are likely to hold these stereotypes especially with
respect to issues of crime and welfare. As political and legislative
decisions still are controlled by white males, these negative biases are
often expressed through policy formation. There is an obvious trend in
this society to discriminate against and deny access to social
institutions to African-Americans (Jewell, 1993). A 1997 study conducted
by Peffley et al indicated that whites who hold negative stereotypes of
African-Americans judge them more harshly than they do other whites when
making hypothetical decisions about violent crimes and welfare benefits.
Plous & Williams (1995) were interested in measuring the extent to
which whites still hold the racial stereotypes formed in the days of
"American Slavery"; however, they noted a lack of current data on this
subject. National public opinion surveys do not measure racial
stereotypes, yet these authors found some research that indicated that
there has been a steady decline in the belief that whites are more
intelligent than blacks. Plous & Williams suspected there was reason
to doubt this conclusion and conducted their own survey on the current
existence of stereotypes. Findings revealed that 58.9 percent of black and
white subjects endorsed at least one stereotypical difference in inborn
ability. Additionally, whites are 10 times more likely to be seen as
superior in artistic ability and abstract thinking ability; and
African-Americans were 10 times more likely to be seen as superior in
athletic ability and rhythmic ability. Further, 49 percent of subjects
endorsed stereotypical differences in physical characteristics such as
blacks experience less physical pain that whites and have thicker skulls
and skin. Interestingly, African-Americans and those subjects without a
high school degree were more likely than others to endorse racial
stereotypes (Plous & Williams, 1995). This finding shows how
individuals internalize negative self-stereotypes.
Some recent incidents indicating the continued existence of racial
stereotypes were noted in the news (Plous & Williams, 1995). In 1991
the Los Angeles police officers who beat African-American Rodney King
referred to a domestic dispute among African-Americans as "right out of
'Gorillas in the Mist'" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 812). Similarly,
in 1992, the director of Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health
Administration resigned after "likening inner-city youths to monkeys in
the jungle" (Plous & Williams, 1995, p. 812 ).
Conclusion and Implications
It is important to gauge accurately the level and nature of prejudice
and stereotyping of African-Americans in contemporary society if one is to
intervene effectively in these areas (Plous & Williams, 1995).
However, in order to do this, society as a whole must come to terms with
the fact that stereotypes and oppression still exist today. We have made
enormous progress since the days of slavery and the stereotypes that
supported it. Yet it seems that many people are unaware of the remaining
stereotypes, negative attitudes, and oppression of African-Americans.
Because stereotypes are so often accepted as the truth, defining the
problem is a crucial step of intervention.
It is also important to explore how stereotypes are formed and
dispelled in order to intervene in the problem. Many people develop
expectations based on their beliefs and are inclined to ignore or reject
information that is inconsistent with these beliefs. These individuals
look for information that supports stereotypes. Therefore, encouraging
people to recognize information that is consistent with stereotypes may be
helpful in dispelling damaging stereotypes within society.
It is, then, essential to provide people with information that
challenges stereotypes. Because the media's portrayal of African-Americans
has been and still is conducive to the formation of stereotypes,
interventions in this area are a good place to start. Currently,
African-Americans are over-represented as sports figures (Peffley et al,
1997). Reevaluation of the content of television commercials, magazine
advertisements, movies, plays, cultural events, museum exhibits, and other
media reveals where African-American representation needs to be increased.
There is nothing wrong with the image of the African-American athlete.
However, it is the portrayal of this image at the exclusion of other
positive images that leads to stereotyping (Hoffmann, 1986).
Finally, educating people about damaging, inaccurate stereotypes is
recommended. Small focus groups involving individuals of different races
could be organized through agencies, schools, universities or churches.
Discussion of racial stereotypes and attitudes in a safe format would
allow people to explore and possibly discard stereotypes. Individuals can
reassess their own prejudices and biases and effect a change within
themselves. Through a non-judgmental process of exploration, the
possibility that people who believe and perpetuate stereotypes do so not
out of hate but as a means of protecting themselves can be considered.
They may do so out of ignorance, habit or fear rather than maliciousness.
By suspending our disbelief and seeing each person as an individual rather
than through the eyes of a preconceived stereotype, we can begin this
change on the individual level. As a result, resolution on the community
and societal levels can occur.
Anderson, M. L., & Collins, P. H. (1995). Race, class, and gender:
an anthology. 2nd. ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Beane, A., Hatch, J., & McNamara, B. (1996). Inside the minstrel
mask: Readings in nineteenth century blackface minstrelsy. Hanover, NH:
Wesleyan University Press.
Boskin, J. (1986). Sambo: The rise and demise of an American jester.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Cassuto, L. (1997). The inhuman race: The racial grotesque in American
literature and culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Cheang, S.L. (1989). Color schemes: America's washload in four cycles.
New York: The Kitchen.
Day, P.J. (1997). A new history of social welfare. 2nd Ed.. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Engle, G. D. (1978). This grotesque essence: Plays from the American
minstrel stage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.
Goings, K. W. (1994). Mammy and uncle Mose: Black collectibles and
American stereotyping. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Halloran, J. D. (1967). Attitude formation and change. Westport, Conn.:
Haverly, J. (1969). American humorists series: Negro minstrels, a
complete guide. New Jersey: Literature House.
Hurwitz, J., Peffley, M., & Sniderman, P. (1997). Racial
stereotypes and whites' political views of blacks in the context of
welfare and crime. American Journal of Political Science. 41, 30-60.
Jewell, S.K. (1993). From mammy to miss America and beyond: Cultural
images and the shaping of US policy. New York: Routledge.
Mueller, D. J. (1986). Measuring social attitudes: A handbook for
researchers and practitioners. New York: Teachers College Press.
Pieterse, J. N. (1992). White on black: images of Africa and blacks in
western popular culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
McGraw Hill. (1967). Scales for the measurement of attitudes.
Plous, S. and Williams, T. (1995). Racial stereotypes from the days of
American slavery: a continuing legacy. Journal of Applied Social
Psychology. 25, 795-817.
Roorbach, O. (1968). American humorists series: Minstrel gags and end
men's handbook. 1968. New Jersey: Literature House.
Smith, J. D. (1993). Anti-abolition tracts and anti-black stereotypes:
General statements of the Negro problem. Vol 1. New York: Garland
Smith, J.D. (1993). The "benefits" of slavery: The proslavery argument,
part II. Vol 4. New York; Garland Publishing.
Townsend, C. (1969). American humorists series: Negro minstrels. New
Jersey: Literature House.
Witke, C. (1968). Tambo and Bones: A history of the American minstrel
stage. 2nd. ed. New York: Greenwood Press.
Page maintained by Student
Affairs Communications Office.