Television and Race
There were preliminary indications that TV would counteract the racial prejudice and pejorative stereotyping that had characterized print, film, and radio. Emerging in a postwar period of liberal reevaluation of chronic racial animosity, television seemed to promise, in the words of
Ebony magazine in mid-1950, a color-blind medium "free of racial barriers." African-American singers and dancers appeared often on early network TV. By 1950 jazz pianists Hazel Scott on DuMont and Bob Howard on CBS had their own programs, and Sugar Hill Times was an attempt by CBS in 1949 to offer an hour-long musical variety show featuring only black talent. While these were unsponsored, sustaining productions, in the fall of 1952
The Billy Daniels Show on ABC became the first sponsored network musical show hosted by an African-American.
But deeply rooted social patterns as well as the economics of video soon quashed reformist hopes. Whites were the main consumers of TV programming and of the advertised products, and by the early 1950s ratings illustrated that white Americans preferred shows with blacks in traditional stereotypic roles. This was especially true for situation comedies. Whereas pop vocalist Billy Daniels lasted thirteen weeks,
Amos 'n' Andy endured for two years on CBS and then thirteen years in syndication. For three seasons
Beulah featured the familiar "mammy" characterization of the stout black maid benignly dealing with the domestic problems of her white, middle-class employers. Similarly, the doltish but lovable "coon" character—stupid, scared of ghosts, barely able to speak in coherent sentences—was portrayed well by Willie Best in
My Little Margie, Waterfront, and particularly The Stu Erwin Show.
Other stereotyped black characters soon familiar on early TV comedy ranged from the sassy valet Rochester on
The Jack Benny Program to subordinated African natives on the syndicated
Ramar of the Jungle, to those pickaninnies Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat seen in vintage
Our Gang comedies from the 1920s and 1930s that appeared on early TV as
The Little Rascals.
Further, once the FCC freeze was lifted and TV spread beyond the West Coast, Midwest, and Northeast, networks and advertisers became increasingly sensitive to regional racial attitudes. Although it was not alone with its powerful racist prejudices, the white South was most influential as a force for segregation, asserting its bigoted worldview and pressuring for the acquiescence of national TV.
The networks could afford to be relatively liberal toward African-Americans when, as in December 1949, only 4.5 percent of all sets were in the South. But with the national expansion of the medium, the fear of regional boycotts, and other adverse reactions by white southern consumers—as well as by many white Northerners and Westerners who less overtly shared the dominant southern perspective on race—realities were quickly accommodated by ad agencies and sponsors, as well as by writers, producers, and station and network executives. In practical terms this meant moderating or eliminating images of racial equality in TV dramas, lobbying against "overexposure" by black guest stars on network shows, non-support for programs hosted by African-Americans, and respecting Jim Crow state laws prohibiting black and white athletes from competing together.
There were exceptions to this pattern. But it took the personal intervention of white men as successful as Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan to keep African-American entertainers appearing on their prime-time variety programs—especially as the civil rights movement became a heated social reality. And the networks were willing to televise racially mixed
boxing matches and baseball, football, and basketball games as long as the actual events took place within states permitting such athletic competition.
By the mid-1950s racial attitudes were not particularly egalitarian anywhere in the United States, and the potential for adverse white reaction in the South conveniently masked exclusion and stereotyping elsewhere in the nation. It is significant that even outside the South there were few black men or women starring in detective or Western stories, announcing or participating in sporting events, gathering the news, hosting quiz programs, appearing in soap operas or spy series, heading comedy-variety shows or situation comedies, or acting in any of the great live theatrical productions that later characterized this period as a Golden Age of TV drama.
Like Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other racial minorities, African-Americans generally were excluded from television. The exception was found in those derisive representations of blacks that trivialized, belittled, and otherwise condemned them to an inferior social status, and used these unflattering characterizations to justify the unjust treatment of blacks in reality. It was popular culture in the service of American apartheid.
Although NBC could proclaim in 1951 that "Defamatory statements or derogatory references, expressed or implied, toward an individual nationality, race, group, trade, profession, industry, or institution are not permitted," the reality reported by Variety in 1956 was that pressure from advertisers with Southern markets was "setting back by many years the advancement made in television toward providing equal job opportunities regardless of race, creed, or color. At one major agency the word has gone out: 'No Negro performers allowed.'"
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