African Americans and the
New Video Realities
After decades of racial misrepresentation and damaging bias in U.S. television, the situation for blacks in white TV has been changing significantly since the early 1980s. With networks in decline and national television evolving toward a new relationship with its public, the medium is slowly evidencing a new racial attitude. This is because the infrastructure of the industry is changing.
Ultimately, TV is a medium of advertising, and money is its mother's milk. Since American television has always been fueled by sponsors' dollars, it has been dedicated to attracting large audiences for the commercials of its advertisers. If material forces alter this fundamental arrangement, then those in the business must adapt or perish.
New business conditions by the 1990s have made African Americans a prized target audience, one to be respected by programmers and appreciated by advertisers. Although the secondary characterizations and stereotyping of the Age of the New Minstrelsy may endure, before the camera blacks are gradually emerging from predictable, subordinate roles. Behind the camera minority presence remains small, but here, too, there have been modest developments in which minorities have begun to exert influence over program production and content. Together, these changes constitute a breach in the racial logjam that chronically has blocked African Americans from fair and open access to the video industry. These changes also represent a move toward fulfilling the original promise of prejudice-free TV, a condition that seems more realizable in the final decade of this century than at any time in the history of television.
But there remains serious weakness in the new attitude of video toward black America. As director Melvin Van Peebles noted on the CNN Showbiz Today telecast of April 28, 1989, "Now, television has offered a substantial opportunity—not as substantial as we would like, not as equitable. But on the whole it's moving a little bit." Although created by substantial changes in the structure of television, this movement toward an honest treatment of minorities is still recent and fragile. The improvements of the last several years do not constitute an immutable transformation. These developments remain defenseless against pressures created by economic calamities, deteriorating international relations, and social and political tensions within the United States.
It is significant that these material changes have not been complemented by any moral reevaluation of racism within U.S. society. When a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party leader garners almost two-thirds of the white vote in the Louisiana senatorial election in 1990—then nearly wins the governorship of that state in the following year—it is obvious that racial bigotry remains virulent and obvious and rewarding. When civil rights protections find stiff opposition from the President of the United States, Congress, and the Supreme Court, black Americans cannot be reassured that equality and justice are on the horizon.
When it is more dangerous for a young black man to walk the streets of urban America than to fight his nation's battle in the Persian Gulf, social fact must sound a sobering counterpoint to any advancement for African Americans in television. And when 43 percent of black children are born officially poor—when black unemployment is more than double that of whites—when a black boy is seven times more likely to be murdered than a white boy—when nearly half the African-American teenagers in Chicago are high school dropouts and there are more black men in Washington, D.C. jails than are graduated from the city's high schools in a year, the United States has clearly failed a sizable portion of its citizens. As a recent British assessment of ghetto conditions has declared, "The slums in America's great cities are shameful. They are a damning indictment of the richest country in the world. The problems that fester in them are not peripheral: they constitute America's main domestic challenge today."
In understanding the place of blacks in contemporary TV, there is also a lesson from recent history to consider. Just as social, economic, and political developments in the early 1970s eroded the Golden Age for African Americans in the industry, so too might future realities adversely affect the positive trends of the past several years. Unless their presence takes root in the infrastructure of the business, blacks will always be vulnerable.
Adding to the ambiguity of this improving situation is an apparent confusion among blacks about their own image in popular culture. With a greater potential for honest racial representation, questions are being debated within the black community. Should they be shown only as middle class and assimilated, as are most whites; or is this a denial of racial authenticity? Should blacks be portrayed in terms of the urban underclass, especially when such imagery might appear as crude or unaccomplished? Should the folk images of rural blacks—often with characteristics that have fed the distorted, racist stereotypes so familiar in American pop culture—be propagated now as real, or should they be buried as anachronistic and self-defeating? Can African Americans dare to accept a full range of racial characters—from the dynamic chairman of the corporate board to the dimwitted buffoon—when the predominantly white audience has a persistent history of prejudice, when black socioeconomic mobility remains constricted, and when television still has not opened its doors to full and unfettered participation by minorities?
In the new television arrangement most people of color have been assimilated into the middle class where they now display the behavioral norms of bourgeois white America. Yet, this "Bill Cosby" image has received its share of criticism, attacked for being unrealistic, unrepresentative, and misleading. Certainly, there is a substantial black bourgeoisie whose housing, dress, language, education, income level, value system, and lifestyle are little different from its Caucasian equivalent. In fact, the black middle class rose from about 10 percent of the African-American population in 1960 to more than one-third of it by 1991. Moreover, many scholars have long asserted that social class is more crucial than race or ethnicity in determining social behavior. Still, as it did at the time when Julia was a popular series, such representation invites criticism for proposing an unauthentic model for blacks.
Importantly, there is a substantial portion of the African-American population that does not meet middle-class criteria. Blacks still earn fifty-six cents for every dollar earned by whites. Many live in substandard housing located in "black sections" of the nation's large cities. Here these disadvantaged people constitute a lower class, even an underclass. They attend devitalized schools, and are victimized by an oppressive political and economic system still unwilling to address adequately their needs. Too often, they are further hampered by broken homes, drug abuse, poverty, and insufficient job skills.
The frustrating reality of this social element is infrequently depicted in the new video order. Seldom does TV portray the indignities that blacks routinely encounter, regardless of social or economic status. Seldom, too, does the medium present life in the inner city with compassion or understanding. In a report issued in 1989, the National Commission for Working Women of Wider Opportunities for Women concluded that African Americans were being unrealistically represented on television. "Real-world racism, which is pervasive, subtle, and blatant, is commonplace in America but virtually invisible on entertainment television," according to the report. It pointed out, too, that 90 percent of the minority characters on TV—and most of these were African Americans—were middle-class and rich, while the working class and the poor made up less than 10 percent of those images. Yet, according to the report, in reality more than 40 percent of minority men and 60 percent of minority women subsist on less than $10,000 annually. The report also criticized TV entertainment for misleading viewers by suggesting that racial harmony and an egalitarian workplace were everyday realities, and by offering racial injustice as a matter of individual immorality instead of the result of oppressive social structures!
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that U.S. television has begun to change. After a half-century of moral protestation, some in the industry may have been persuaded that African Americans must be treated fairly because it was the "democratic" or "right" thing to do. But the driving force behind this new video reality is more substantial than any spiritual conversion. When he appeared on a segment of the CBS program West 57th Street on May 27, 1989, director Spike Lee well illustrated that the basis for the new openness in Hollywood rested in economics, not ethics. Although he spoke of the motion picture industry, his comments were applicable to TV production as well. "Hollywood only understands economics. I mean, they could hate you, I mean they could call me 'nigger this' and 'nigger that' behind my back, they probably do—you know, 'young nigger upstart,' whatever. But they look at it, when they get their reports from the office, and they see my films are making money." Lee continued, "No matter what they think of me, they're still going to continue to fund them because the films are making money. But if the time ever arises where you stop making money, 'You're outta here!' "
In essence, improved African-American representation in modern television is the result of a simple equation: first, there are many more stations and consequently greater competition for viewers and profits; second, there are sizable minority audiences, the most prominent of which is the black viewership, whose loyalty is now highly desirable; and third, each minority audience appreciates positive depiction of itself on TV. When added together, the resulting programs will attract viewers, make money, and inspire others to create respectful images of minorities.
One influential organization leading the way toward improved racial representation has been Black Entertainment Television (BET), a national cable channel that targets African-American viewers. Established in 1980 by Charles Johnson, BET has been supported by three cable corporations interested in attracting African Americans: Tele-Communications, Inc., Great American Broadcast Company, and the Time Warner subsidiary, Home Box Office (HBO). In its first years, BET programmers relied greatly on weekly football and basketball games of small black colleges, as well as on network reruns and music videos. Among the old series finding new life on BET were heralded, but short-lived offerings such as The Lazarus Syndrome, Paris, and Tim Reid’s unusually-sensitive comedy series, Frank's Place. By the early 1990s, however, BET moved decisively into original programming. Here, shows have ranged from an evening newscast with a black perspective and a nightly entertainment-gossip program (Screen Scene) to a weekend music and talk show for teenagers (Teen Summit).
Despite the swelling popularity of BET and other cable operations, over-the-air broadcasting continued to dominate viewing patterns in the 1980s and early 1990s. Certainly, audience figures plummeted at the three networks, dropping from a cumulative 56.6 rating/90 share in the 1979-80 season to a 41.5 rating/67 share by 1988-89, to a 37.5 rating/63 share for 1990-91, but no single cable channel could match ABC, CBS, or NBC in terms of audience size. It is significant, moreover, that advertisers did not desert free TV. Convinced that the three networks still delivered the largest audiences for their sales pitches, sponsors by late 1988 still placed 81 percent of their advertising dollars in network shows.
Although cable success and network attrition delivered the message that African Americans constituted a desirable target audience, this was still no insurance against inflammatory racial representation. No character inflamed the argument over black TV imagery more than Bosco "B.A." (Bad Attitude) Barracus, the muscle-bound mechanic who with several white misfits formed the rugged and popular mercenaries of The A-Team. As portrayed by the highly-publicized bouncer and bodyguard, Mr. T, Barracus was a caricature of the action-adventure hero when he appeared on NBC from early 1983 to mid-1987. B.A. had his soft spots: he may have been big and black and menacing, but he drank milk, loved children, and was afraid to fly in airplanes. Such subtleties of character paled, however, before his foreboding, sometimes snarling presence. With his Mohawk haircut, several pounds of gold jewelry, and physical strength, B.A. was the scary black man no white person ever wanted to meet in an alley late at night. Still, he was a controllable angry black man, a Vietnam veteran, a growling warrior who was smart, inventive, and tame—a patriot who now waged "our" just struggle against "their" evil threat.
NBC tried to soften Mr. T's image. As the hero of his own animated children's program, Mr. T, seen on Saturday mornings in 1984, he was much less menacing. At Christmas time in 1984 and 1985, the network paired him with petit Emmanuel Lewis in Christmas Dream, a tender story of a sidewalk Santa Claus attempting to rekindle the Christmas spirit in a lonely little boy. Publicity stressed the actor's popularity with youngsters. TV Guide, for example, "unmasked" him in mid-1984, noting that "Mr. T's exterior may be rough, tough and gruff—but the kids of America know that beneath all that jewelry on the chest of The A-Team star beats a heart of gold." The magazine then printed the generally worshipful assessments of Mr. T written by children in the third, fourth, and fifth grades.
But it was already too late. Mr. T as B.A. Barracus had become the symbol of the industry's chronic failure to depict African Americans constructively. In testimony given in the fall of 1983 before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Consumer Protection, and Finance, Mr. T and his video persona became metaphors for the distorted portrait of black Americans offered by network TV. Actor Bernie Casey railed against white industry executives who continued to produce misinformed and mendacious programs—against "those men [who] continue to give us the collective Mr. T." According to Casey, "We as people of color cannot afford the callousness exercised upon us by insensitive people making decisions that are thoughtless ... decisions that continue to perpetuate the kind of imagery that warps the psyche of the viewership for generations." In a similar vein, Robert Hooks reminded the same House committee that the networks determine what black images appear on TV. "We don't own the networks, we don't own the airwaves, so we can't come back at NBC if they say Mr. T is it. Then the world embraces Mr. T, and it is unfair to blacks. . . ."
Derisive racial depiction appeared in two basic forms: occasionally, in episodes of network shows that were otherwise benign—and fundamentally, when built into a recurring series character. There was considerable outcry generated, for instance, by the broadcast of the situation comedy Buffalo Bill on December 22, 1983. In this NBC offering, the lead character dreamed that his TV talk show was assaulted by an entourage of angry black men and women—including a frightening band of spear-toting African natives dressed in loin cloths—all lip-synching Ray Charles' recording of "Hit the Road, Jack." Although it provoked little controversy this time, in September 1983, NBC quietly reran the demeaning Beulah Land miniseries. As Kathryn Montgomery described the scheduling tactic in Target: Prime Time, her book on advocacy groups and the struggle over entertainment television, "black activists were caught off-guard by the show's sudden reappearance, and it was too late to organize a campaign against it."
With more consequence, two white sports personalities lost their jobs when they unguardedly expressed their antediluvian racial opinions on TV. Baseball executive Al Campanis of the Los Angeles Dodgers suggested on ABC News Nightline (April 6, 1987) that there were few African-American managers or front-office executives in baseball because they were intellectually inferior, because "they may not have some of the necessities.... I don't say all of them, but they certainly are short. How many quarterbacks do you have, how many pitchers do you have that are black?" He carried his comments further, asking "Why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don't have the buoyancy."
Less than a year later, gambling expert Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder of CBS Sports offered a bizarre genetic history lesson to a reporter for WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. (January 15, 1988). According to this highly-paid odds-maker and football analyst, black athletes were physically superior to white athletes because of historical eugenics. This, he explained, was because slave owners in earlier centuries had practiced selective breeding programs, mating strong black males with strong black females to produce the most rugged workers possible.
While egregious displays of racism might be dismissed as occasional tastelessness or the personal ignorance of individuals, there was something deeply sinister when familiar racial stereotypes appeared premeditatedly as series regulars. During the first two seasons of Miami Vice, Charlie Barnett played a silly street informant, Noogie Lamont, whose facial grimaces and addled banter were more appropriate for a minstrel-show endman than an occasional character in this polished Florida police drama. Moreover, his juxtaposition to the other sophisticated black and white personalities in the series only accentuated the distortion inherent in "the Noog man."
Another flagrant case of insensitivity in minority characteri¬zation occurred in the fall of 1983 on the short-lived situation comedy Just Our Luck. Here, T. K. Carter played Shabu, a black genie liberated from a green bottle, who now proclaimed his willingness to serve his white master "for 2000 years or until your death." Media authority Don Bogle accurately termed Shabu "a 1980s-style slave" and "an embarrassing throwback to past eras of movie coons."
In the hit series Webster, the endearing black child, the pickaninny, was reprised by precocious Emmanuel Lewis. Like Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges of Diff 'rent Strokes, Webster offered a picture of the deracinated youngster living the good life because has had been adopted by Caucasians. Although for one season Webster had a black relative, Uncle Phillip (played by Ben Vereen), during its four-year run (1983-87) this uprooted child's world was defined by the white couple that "rescued" him after his parents had perished in an automobile accident.
The racial condescension in this scenario was obvious. U.S. television never scheduled a series where a loving black couple "rescued" a white child by adopting him. The implications for black parenting were damning. At a time when network TV had no series featuring black families, this cute African-American boy was being raised by Caucasians. Moreover, this premise inherently suggested that insufficiencies within black America could be solved if enough white people adopted black children.
As much as the minstrel-show coon or the endearing pickaninny, the sexually-neutralized black man possesses a rich history in American popular culture. In this classic characterization, African-American males were rendered romantically unappealing to white women, thereby constituting no rivalry to white male prowess. This was done via exaggerated physical unattractiveness, or diminished intellectual capacity, or a general disinterest in white femininity. Often this image was enhanced with dominating black women who bullied and belittled their weak men, an activity sure to reassure whites that the black male libido was being controlled by this substitute overseer.
Like the other minstrel-show caricatures, this emasculated social type appeared often in U.S. television—from the sexually harmless males depicted on Amos 'n' Andy, to their brethren in contemporary video. Nowhere in modern TV was such neutralizing of black manhood more obvious than in Designing Women. In a series filled with flirtatious Southern white women, the accomplished Chicago actor Meshach Taylor played the loyal friend and helper, Anthony, to four sexy and available Dixie belles. Always there with assistance or sympathy, Anthony operated around them like an ebony eunuch in a harem of white flesh, never able to touch the tempting merchandise, never even fantasizing about romantic liaison.
But recent series television has not just resurrected vintage stereotypes, it has popularized a new negative type. Although the high crime-rate in African-American society remains a deplorable reality, there has been little attempt by entertainment TV to explain this social crisis in terms of its roots in poverty, ignorance, discrimination, unemployment, frustration, alienation, and anger. Instead, in video fiction black crime has taken on an exciting mystique. Outlaw behavior has become an asset, in fact, as many black characters have been created as reformed criminals now working for "the system." Even harmless Anthony on Designing Women is an ex-convict. From a streetwise con man turned investigative reporter on The Insiders, to a comical escapee from a Texas chain gang on Stir Crazy, to a paroled murderer now investigating cases for a white female lawyer on Gabriel's Fire, entertainment TV has propagated the message that no one knows crime like blacks know crime. Such imagery also has suggested that lawlessness is generic to African-American manhood, and that criminality has its rewards since it provides a useful street education to these crooks-turned-good-guys.
Compounding the linkage of racial minorities to crime, network and local newscasts constantly focus on lawlessness among African Americans. While black-on-black crime statistics are staggering, the constant stream of distressing TV pictures—a bloody corpse on the ground and a drive-by shooting investigated, robbery or rape suspects jailed, drug pushers and addicts, vandalism in the projects—present black urban communities as virtual war zones. Add to this the rash of police actuality shows such as Cops and America's Most Wanted that entered television in the 1990s, and the impression received is one of rampant inner city outlawry created by uncontrollable black marauders.
The writer Ishmael Reed has lashed out at such imagery, reminding Americans that reality communicated through network television news is a distortion. According to Reed, while TV news associates blacks with drugs 50 percent of the time, in actuality 15 percent of the drug users in the U.S. are black and 70 percent are white. Although the majority of Americans affected by homelessness, welfare, unwed parenthood, child abuse and rape are whites, again TV journalism disproportionately associates these conditions with Americans of color. In damning TV, "the chief source of information that Americans receive about the world," Reed was blunt. "The networks' reasoning seems to be that if blacks weren't here, the United States would be a paradise where people would work 24 hours a day, drink milk, go to church, and be virgins until marriage."
Throughout these first three distinct time periods, black representation was shaped by the attitudes and priorities of the predominately white males who ran the television industry. But, whatever their personal feelings on racial matters, these were executives who understood TV as a profit-seeking enterprise. It may have been a national medium espousing egalitarian purposes, but first and foremost it was a capitalist business committed to making money. And in their finite wisdom, these executives felt that profits could be maximized by employing African Americans in stereotypical roles that would be acceptable to predominately white audiences. As well as being a biased methodology, this way of programming national TV was an unfair distortion created by the monopoly that was network broadcasting in the United States.
From the outset, national TV was structured as a monopoly controlled by ABC, CBS, and NBC. Through much of its first forty years, U.S. television at best consisted of three national networks and a few independent stations in each market area. The most popular operations were VHF (Very High Frequency) outlets ranging from channels 2 to 13. Due to technical requirements, however, there could never be more than seven VHF stations in a single market—and only Los Angeles and New York City had that many.
Network control of U.S. video was so solid that when UHF (Ultra High Frequency) stations, channels 14 through 84, began to appear in the mid-1950s, they failed to weaken network dominance. Indeed, UHF stations—local in their orientation and lacking the capital with which to produce original programs—were soon filled with reruns of series popularized and partly owned by ABC, CBS, and NBC.
With such channel scarcity, the greatest profits were earned by those operations that attracted the largest audiences. This was the era of broadcasting, a time when TV executives and sponsors sought broadly-based audiences, conglomerations of diverse viewers fused together to watch TV shows communicating attitudes held in common. Programs were aimed at mainstream, majority tastes: what experienced programmers felt most people would watch. Minority preferences—be they racially, politically, culturally, or intellectually outside this mainstream—were seldom served by commercial television.
It is important, however, that this exclusionary arrangement was not set in stone. As actor Bernie Casey noted in 1983, "It is not an act of God that television is so white. It is a conscious decision made by white men who think the world is all white and refuse to understand that it is not. Things can change." Indeed, since the early 1980s there has been change, encouraging change triggered by the slow but steady erosion of monopolistic broadcasting. In its place there has been emerging a narrowcasting system offering dozens of national program services and scores of channels that are delivered by cable, direct broadcast signal, and other electronic advances. This has resulted in an unsettled new video reality characterized by intense competition for audiences and, consequently, the need to serve narrower constituencies.
Inherent in this metamorphosis toward narrowcasting is the possibility of a television New Deal for African Americans. This possibility arises not because of any great libertarian conversion, it exists because industry leaders and advertisers now recognize blacks as a formidable consumer force with size, money, and definite likes and dislikes. While they received relatively scant attention when the three broadcasters were competing for at least one-third of the national audience, black viewers are now a desirable demographic bloc—representing more than 12 percent of the U.S. population—that is often courted by networks and stations competing aggressively for select audiences.
Ironically, it appears that the only way to have realized the bias-free, original promise of TV was to destroy the channel scarcity fundamental to discriminatory broadcasting. In this light, the rearrangement of U.S. television and the subsequent decline of the three national networks, events that have occurred in the fourth time period, offer the greatest hope for positive African-American representation since the early years of national video.