The Symbolic Annihilation of Race: A Review of the
Robin R. Means Coleman, Ph.D., Department of Communication
Studies, University of Michigan
Emily Chivers Yochim, Ph.D., Department of Communication
Studies, University of Michigan
In this review essay, we deﬁ ne the concept “symbolic annihilation
of race” and present its scholarly research uses. Most often, the
concept is used to describe the problematic treatment of racial groups
in media. In our review and subsequent analysis of this concept, we
observe that “symbolic annihilation of race” is most useful when
it is used to note the absence or trivialization of racial groups in
media. As a concept, it is able to capably address concerns beyond
“Criticism of black images,” writes sociologist Darnell
M. Hunt, “has typically been leveled on two fronts: either the
images are denounced as distorted, or they are attacked for being
damaging in some way” (2005, p. 15). This sort of “here’s a
stereotype, there’s a stereotype” lamentation, often offered by
cultural critics, is valuable in that it not only lays bare the skewed
treatment of blacks in media, but also works to pinpoint imagery’s
social functions and forms. For example, in his extensive analysis
of black representation in American ﬁ lm, Donald Bogle (2001)
observes that African American men are often portrayed as over-
sexed and savage. Such problematic representation has far-reaching
cultural implications. As Hill-Collins (2000) offers, stereotypical
images of African American women, such as the welfare mother
and the sexually wanton “Jezebel,” provide “powerful ideological
justiﬁ cations [for] intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender,
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and sexuality” (p. 69). Likewise, Entman (1990, 1992) argues that
American news media perpetuates a “modern racism” in which a
rejection of systemic discriminations that plague African Americans
is exhibited. Even actress Marla Gibbs, testifying in the 1990s
before the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, concluded “[African
Americans] are more or less told who we are, rather than asked…
We sing, we dance, we tell jokes – that’s all we are allowed to do.
We entertain.” (Monroe, 1994, p. 84).
“Stereotype” versus “Symbolic Annihilation of Race”
A stereotype is deﬁ ned as a conventional, formulaic,
oversimpliﬁ ed concept, opinion, or belief. It describes the promotion
of an unvarying depiction of a group that, in a media context, has
come to be associated with negative portrayals (Means Coleman,
2000). However, as a concept, “stereotype” is particularly reliant
on discourses that actively signify that which is a present and
identiﬁ able, constructed image. A stereotype, then, is quite adept at
drawing our attention to how individuals and groups are presented,
but the concept may not function as well in capturing the meanings
associated with absence, omission, or even an inclusion that is not
so obviously problematic (negative). As such, in this review of the
literature we detail the relevancy of a related, yet distinct concept,
“symbolic annihilation of race,” which, we argue, facilitates a deeper
look at media as a site of American cultural politics in which imagery
is not seen as simply positive or negative, but where “what things
mean and how they register” (Gray, 1995, p. 7) focus our attention
upon the more complex hegemonic potentialities of media.
Origins of the Concept
The concept “symbolic annihilation” was introduced by
George Gerbner (1972). He ﬁ rst brieﬂ y referenced the concept
without elaboration: “representation in the ﬁ ctional world signiﬁ es
social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation” (p. 44).
Gerbner used the concept of symbolic annihilation to reveal how
representations, including omissions, cultivate dominant assumptions
about how the world works and, as a result, where power resides.
In 1976, Gerbner and Gross presented the same deﬁ nition for the
concept even as they continued to extend its application. This
adaptation marks a subtle shift as the authors argue that though
media audiences, speciﬁ cally television viewers, are aware that
entertainment programming is ﬁ ction, viewers adopt a “TV answer”
in which content becomes the social reality. For example, if women
are represented as nurses on television, then it is women, not men, we
expect to see in the nursing profession. This gender role expectation
provides evidence that a representational lack in media can be just
as problematic as a stereotypical presence.
Because Gerbner did not conﬁ ne symbolic annihilation to
any particular group, the concept is now deployed widely. Gaye
Tuchman (1978), in her seminal chapter “Introduction: The Symbolic
Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media,” applied the term to the
treatment of women in a range of media and expanded the concept
from Gerbner’s simple deﬁ nition of “absence” to include imagistic
“condemnation” and “trivialization” (p. 17). By way of example,
Tuchman observed, “women are not important in American society,
except perhaps within the home. And even within the home,
men know best.” (p. 17). In Tuchman’s analysis, women may be
representationally present, be depicted “positively” as loving and
good, and still be “trivialized” when juxtaposed against a depiction
of men, who are shown as wise and powerful.
Uses of the Symbolic Annihilation of Race in Scholarship
Symbolic annihilation has been further extended to describe
representations of racial and ethnic groups. For example, one
notable elaboration of symbolic annihilation into the arena of race
comes from Mazon (1984). Though he fails to cite either Gerbner
or Tuchman, Mazon explores how Mexican-American, zoot-suiting
youth were symbolically annihilated by Anglo sailors during the
“zoot suit” riots of 1942. Mazon posits that the specter of World
War II induced an emotional state that prompted soldiers to tell
tall tales about their aggression against “enemy” zoot-suiters. The
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news media went a step further, condemning the zoot-suiters by
reporting “these are the type of exuberant youth that Hitler found
useful” (p. 79). Therefore, both the soldiers and the media added a
rhetorical dimension to the expanding imagistic-centered deﬁ nition
of symbolic annihilation. In reality, Mazon reveals, a relatively
bloodless “riot” occurred, which was purposefully ignored by media
(i.e., an “absence”).
Others have found the application of symbolic annihilation
necessary in deepening our understanding of the treatment of
various racial and ethnic groups in media while speculating about
its impact. For instance, in 1979, Tuchman cautioned that the term
should be employed carefully as, “it too has been used to advocate
a naively literal notion of mimesis” (p. 533). However, the concept
has become more of an existential observation (e.g., the Chinese
are symbolically annihilated through frequent representations as
“triad” gang members) or a generic idiom for “stereotyped.” As it
pertains speciﬁ cally to race, symbolic annihilation means that those
racial groups who are not presented as fully developed in media, be
it through absence, trivialization, or condemnation, may see their
social status diminished.
Scholarship focusing on the treatment of blacks in media has
relied quite heavily on this deﬁ nition of racial symbolic annihilation,
although the concept is not always explicitly referenced. To illustrate,
Pescosolido, Grauerholz, and Milkie (1997) describe blacks as
being ignored, stereotyped, or demeaned by media; their criticism
echoes Gerbner’s and Tuchman’s original deﬁ nitions which include
“absence” as well as “condemnation” and “trivialization.” Hooks
(1992) argues that African American women have experienced
condemnation as they are often relegated to controlling, sexually
wanton representations (see also Hill Collins, 2000). Brown (2001)
discusses the absence of heroic blackness in comic books. He argues
that readers must identify across racial boundaries since the visible
racial minorities in most comic books were nameless criminals that
white heroes defeated. Means Coleman (2000) draws on the various
Amos ‘n’ Andy media offerings (e.g., radio programs, television
series, ﬁ lms, cartoons) to highlight how blackness is trivialized
through depictions of a dysfunctional black world, from which
whites are absent. She concludes that when whites do enter into
the world of Amos, Andy, and Kingﬁ sh, they serve the purpose of
condemning blackness by being aghast at a black world rife with
unﬁ t businesspersons and a citizenry that speaks in malapropisms.
Relatedly, Whylie (1999) uses the term “colorstruction” to reveal
how skin color differences within blackness are exploited in media
to associate a higher value to those that possess physical traits
closer to those of whites. Whylie posits that the characters in the
1991 ﬁ lm New Jack City, created by a black ﬁ lmmaker, present
“a rather obvious color line that separates the more negative dark-
complexioned characters […] from the lighter black ones” (p. 189).
For Whylie, introducing such intraracial warfare is not just about
exploiting black as evil in our imaginations. Rather, Whylie offers
that blackness, even in media products such as New Jack City, is
trivialized and rendered moot, replaced by white supremacy and
Moore (1992) also taps into trivialization and condemnation
when he writes that color symbolism and terminology in media can
adversely shape thought. For example, in news media blackness
may come with qualifying adjectives such as, “an intelligent Herero
tribesman” (emphasis ours, p. 326). Moore works hard to make
clear that such symbolic annihilation victimizes blacks on a global
scale. Around the world, reporters have ignored the effects of
(neo)colonialism by describing African countries as “third world”
and “underdeveloped,” rather than “overly exploited,” while the
U.S. and Western Europe have been referred to as “ﬁ rst world” and
as “superpowers” (p. 323).
Limitations in Application
As revelatory as the concept of the symbolic annihilation
of race is to the study of the treatment of blackness in media, it
is not without limitations. In their critique of the concept, Means
Coleman and Chivers Yochim (in press) conclude that the concept
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of the symbolic annihilation of race is still too frequently reduced
in scholarship to “bad representations,” and thus cannot illuminate
more complex representational issues. For example, the authors
cite the television series The Cosby Show as provoking intense
debate among black viewers regarding whether the Huxtable family
is a depiction of assimilationist “White Negroes.” The symbolic
annihilation of race as a concept is less useful, according to the
authors, when representational concerns move beyond dichotomies
of good or bad, presence or absence. As such, concepts such as
“enlightened racism” (Jhally & Lewis, 1992) or classiﬁ catory schema
such as Clark’s (1969) four-part racial minority participation model
(nonrecognition, ridicule, regulation, and respect) are more adept at
handling such nuances. Enlightened racism describes the depiction
of African Americans as being closely in alignment with idealized
white American experiences. Such imagery becomes “racist” and
“enlightened” when for blackness to be viewed as positive it must
demonstrate unencumbered upward mobility and integration vis a
Clark’s model works to summarize the kinds of participation
racial minority groups, such as blacks, are afforded in media.
“Nonrecognition” describes being ignored and excluded by image-
makers. “Ridicule” is deﬁ ned as elevating a dominant racial group by
subordinating the minority group. Clark’s category “regulation” best
illustrates a representational practice that the symbolic annihilation
of race is unable to deal with: the abundance of protector roles (e.g.,
law enforcement) assigned to racial minorities. The casting of black
actor Yaphet Kotto provides a relevant example. Almost to the point
of type-casting, Kotto has portrayed a ranking law enforcement
ofﬁ cer nearly three dozen times, with some acclaim (e.g., Homicide:
Life on the Street). It may be difﬁ cult to conceptualize such
characterizations as belonging in the categories of trivialization
or condemnation, that is, to cite them as demeaning. However, by
limiting the types of roles played by African Americans not only is
their access to media limited, but the general public is not allowed
to see them in the same range of roles, functions and capabilities as
whites. It is much easier to recognize a symbolically annihilating
role for Kotto when you look at the 1973 movie Live and Let Die in
which he plays “Mr. Big,” a murderous, heroin-dealing, drug kingpin.
This role was presented during a period (dubbed “blaxploitation”)
when black representations were often relegated to criminality (e.g.,
Black Caesar; The Mack). Finally, Clark refers to representations of
“respect,” when groups such as blacks are given access to a greater
variety of roles, good, bad, or indifferent, but more importantly, less
A Final Assessment
Symbolic annihilation of race, we believe, lends itself quite
well to being a stand-in term for “negative representations.” As
such, however, it currently presents a limited ability to address
more complex representational concerns. For example, some racial
minorities have been highlighted in seemingly “positive” news media
reports as intelligent. However, these treatments can also be read as
promoting certain groups as exceptional – a model minority myth
– that pits one racial group against another. To illustrate, a Sunday
Times article reported, “more than a quarter of the 130,000 adult
black Africans in Britain hold qualiﬁ cations higher than A-levels
[…] they are now just ahead of the Chinese, the most academically
successful ethnic minority […]” (Hymas & Thomas, 1994, p. 1).
Symbolic annihilation, as a concept, is ill-equipped to address the
multifaceted concern of such purported “positive stereotyping.”
While symbolic annihilation is limited in its ability to address
more complex issues, it quite capably communicates the inherent
problems associated with inadequate media representations. In
this context, it has found great potency among scholars. Outside
of blackness, Means Coleman and Chivers Yochim (in press) note
its increasingly popular application to additional racial and ethnic
group analyses. Merskin (1998) and Miller and Ross (2004) found
it useful in making sense of depictions of Native Americans that
cast the group as savage. Ohye and Daniel (1999) rely on the
concept to reveal how Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Americans are
“Othered” by being lumped into a single category and viewed as
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interchangeable. Shaheen (2001) notes the representational absence
and condemnation of those of Arab descent in ﬁ lm, offering that this
group is largely invisible until a terrorist or oil sheikh is needed on
In sum, symbolic annihilation has, thus far, been especially
useful when describing representations that ﬁ t into dichotomous
relationships of presence or absence and to elucidate the destructive
consequences of poor or absent media attention (Means Coleman
& Chivers Yochim, in press). In the future, before arriving at the
provocative conclusion that a racial group has been symbolically
annihilated, it may be useful for scholars to deconstruct the
notion of race, which has, up to now, not been considered when
exploring patterns of symbolic annihilation. Scholars should also
interrogate the impact symbolic annihilation has upon groups’ social
power. Most obviously, scholars should consider how these media
treatments can be improved. In the end, it is up to scholars making
use of the concept of the symbolic annihilation of race to go where
the concept cannot – into the arena of attending to speciﬁ c resistance
and counterhegemonic strategies.
Please direct all correspondence to Dr. Means Coleman, Department
of Communication Studies, University of Michigan, 1225 South
University, Ann Arbor, MI 48104-2523, (734) 615-7410, (734) 764-
3288- fax, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Under-representation of African American Students in Gifted
Education Programs: Implications for Sustainability in Gifted
Dorothy M. Singleton, Ph.D., Institute for Minority Issues, North
Carolina Central University
Jonathan Livingston, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, North
Carolina Central University
Dorothy Hines, B.A.
Helen Jones, Ph.D., Educational Leadership, Research, and
Technology, North Carolina Central University
The purpose of this article is to examine factors that may impede
sustainability of African American children in gifted education
programs. The lack of representation of minority students in gifted
education programs has been of great concern for decades. For
many scholars, the process of identifying black students for gifted
education programs has been a cumbersome task. The use of
referrals, IQ tests, and other so-called objective measures has not
furthered efforts to identify academically gifted African American
children. Moreover, once these children are identiﬁ ed, what factors
are in place to sustain black children in gifted classes? The following
paper proposes that teacher, familial, and community support are
key in the placement and sustainability of African American students
in gifted education classes.
Closing the achievement gap between African American and
European American children has become of increasing concern for
educators in the U.S. Currently, African American children score
signiﬁ cantly lower on standardized tests than their white counterparts,