The Age Of The New Minstrelsy,
However imperfectly, American television by the late 1960s had been moving toward an more equitable treatment of blacks. In a decade of racial reassessment and new domestic priorities, TV was propelled toward the realization of that color-blind promise so long a part of the medium. With nonfiction television focusing in depth on the racial question, with African-American talent starring in dramatic, comedic, and informational programming—and with small but significant inroads being made into technical and executive aspects of the industry—in the last years of the decade there was reason to anticipate the ultimate realization of bias-free video.
The renewed promise, however, was not fulfilled. The evolution toward television without racial prejudice came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s. For reasons which were political, economic, and social, the role of blacks in TV was refashioned to reflect the popular attitudes and national directions that arose in the 1970s. The result was still another stage in the history of blacks in American television.
This third stage represented a curious synthesis of historical and contemporary influences. While not reverting to the virtual exclusion that marked the end of the first decade of TV, the movement toward fairness made possible by programming achievements in the 1960s was abandoned. Blacks remained visible, but usually in new stereotyped and subordinate roles.
From 1970 to 1983 blacks participated in most aspects of TV programming—from newscasts and situation comedies, to various dramatic formats, commercials, and made-for-TV movies. As entertainers, blacks often achieved greater ratings and popularity than earlier African-American video celebrities.
Something, however, was missing. The quality of African-American performance was debased. Black sensibilities were ignored. Concern with minority social problems evaporated in entertainment and nonfiction shows. While blacks were consistently used in comedies, serious characterization in detective, Western, science fiction, romance, dramatic anthology, and serialized drama, programming was limited and predictable. Black movement into production and management functions remained minimal. And the use of recognized African-American talent, as well as the nurturing of new performers, was slight.
One cannot brush off casually the contributions of African Americans in TV from the early 1970s to 1983. But neither can one feel satisfied with the manner in which the medium received blacks. In this third stage, television was less than honorable in its treatment of this racial minority.