Framing & Fear of Young Black Men in America Part I

This is part one in a two part series. In this first post, Bridget Welch explains prototypes, schema, and framing and how these concepts help us understand the characterization of black and Latino boys as criminals. In the second post, she will help us relate these concepts to understand the charges of racism made in recent Stand Your Ground cases.

Close your eyes and imagine a dog. What does your dog look like? The dog you image is your “doggiest dog.” It’s the doggiest dog to ever dog. It’s your dog prototype. All other dogs are measured (and found wanting) in comparison to your dog prototype. It includes the list of attributes that you have about a dog (e.g. fur, paws, tail, wet nose) but also includes something more. The dog “essence.” What it does then is allow you to look at other things, like this thing:

and decide, “Is that a dog?”

And, if despite your better judgment you decide “Yes, that thing is a dog” what then happens is you activate your dog schema. While a prototype is your exemplar of a category, a schema is all your ideas about that category. Think of it as a file cabinet in your head with a drawer marked “dog.” When you open that drawer, all the information you have about dogs is right there. Information about what they eat, how they behave, your ideas about their loyalty, the Taco Bell chihuahua, the Dog Whisperer — everything that you’ve gathered about dogs from hearing about them, reading about them, watching TV or films, and of course interacting with them, all right there. And you use that information to decide how to interact, treat, and behave toward the new thing you’ve labeled “dog.”

We also have prototypes with related schematic content for things like “criminals” and “drug users.” If you closed your eyes and pictured a “criminal” what would that person look like? Would that person be a he? Would he be young or old? Would he be black? Research indicates that for most Americans, our prototypes for criminals are young black (and to lesser extent but still highly problematic, Hispanic) males. Indeed, as Kelly Welch (no relation) writes in her article about black criminal stereotypes:”stereotyping of Blacks as criminals is so pervasive throughout society that “criminal predator” is used as a euphemism for “young Black male.”


One reason is most likely that when we see or hear about crime, it’s skewed in such a way that our schema drawers become chock full of portrayals of black criminals. As Entmann and Gross find in their study, news coverage of crimes disproportionately focus on those committed by blacks and Latinos — particularly in terms of violent crimes. What this means is that there are many more stories focused on Black or Latino committed violent crime then what you would expect based on who is actually committing violent crimes. Further damaging is that portrayals of black and brown folk as criminals far outweighs any positive representations (e.g. positive local stories/profiles).

This problem is compounded when you look at official statistics of crime. For example, the FBI crime statistics seem to show that Blacks disproportionately commit crimes (e.g. commit crimes at a great rate than what would be expected given the number of Blacks in American population). What this hides is the effect that our black male = criminal schema plays in the criminal justice system itself (this is the focus of Part II). When we look at who self-reports doing illegal behaviors (meaning they didn’t actually have to get caught, arrested, go to trial, get convicted to show up in the official statistics), Whites, Blacks and Latinos report doing crimes at proportional rates (for a fuller review check out The New Jim Crow).

This all reflected by our media which continually stereotype Black and Latino men as criminals, gang bangers, and violent. We take these images in from music, television, and film which has been illustrated time and time again.

As a result of all of this, our schema file drawer become overflowing with negative representations. This becomes highly problematic in a society that is still highly segregated by race (check out the proof in map form here). For many, the images we see on the news and in film are all we have in our schema drawers.

And thus, we introduce framing. According to Goffman, frames are the “schemata of interpretation” that enable individuals “to locate, perceive, identify, and label.” Framing helps us make sense of events, provide a way to interpret what is going on in a setting, and thus determine our course of action.

For example, how we frame childhood deviance for white boys and black boys changes how we view their behavior. In this example, two boys do the same thing — take their parents’ cars on joyrides. When the white boy does it is seen as a “boy being a boy” but when the black boy does it, it is viewed as marking him as a “pre-criminal.”And based on this framing, there are different ideas of what should be done as a result of the behavior (grounded for 4 days vs. wanting to get him in the system at 7!).

What results is that our prototypes and schema about young black and Hispanic men creates an environment where we are likely to see a young black boy, open up the associated file drawer, and determine that whatever behavior he is doing is “criminal.” In the next post in this series, I will explore this further and relate it to the recent occurrences with the stand your ground laws.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Use what you’ve learned here to explain why stand your ground laws “increase the likelihood that a homicide will be considered “justified,” but only in cases where a white person is accused of killing a black person” (see here for more).
  2. Watch this magician frame the exact same outcome in two different ways — either as a risk or a gain. How does framing change individual behavior?
  3. Watch this short documentary on NYC’s (now defunct) Stop & Frisk policy. The police officers frame the young man’s behavior as suspicious. How else could you frame it knowing what the young man has gone through with the police in NYC?
  4. Download this fact sheet about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Summarize what these disparities are. How does these relate to the “race effect” in the justice system?