the late 1980s whiteness was consistently naturalized in U.S. television--social
whiteness, that is, not the "pinko-grayishness" that British novelist
E.M. Forster correctly identified as the standard skin-hue of Europeans.
This whiteness has not been culturally monochrome. Irish, Italians,
Jews, Poles, British, French, Germans, Russians, whether as ethnic
entities or national representatives, have dotted the landscape
of TV drama, providing the safe spice of white life, entertaining
trills and flourishes over the basso ostinato of social whiteness.
other words, to pivot the debate on race and television purely on
whether and how people of color have figured, on or behind the screen
or in the audience, is already to miss the point. What was consistently
projected, without public fanfare but in teeming myriads of programs,
scenes, news priorities, sportscasts, old movies, ads, was the naturalness
and normalcy of social whiteness. Television visually accumulated
the heritage of representation in mainstream U.S. science, religion,
education, theatre, art, literature, cinema, radio, the press. According
to television representation, the United States was a white nation,
with some marginal "ethnic" accretions that were at their best when
they could simply be ignored, like well-trained and deferential
maids and doormen. This was even beyond being thought a good thing.
It was axiomatic, self-evident.
American television in its first two generations inherited and diffused--on
an hourly and daily basis--a mythology of whiteness that framed
and sustained a racist national self-understanding. Arguably all
the more powerfully for seemingly being so integral, so...inevitable.
is a second issue. Insofar as the televisual hegemony of social
whiteness has been critiqued, either on television itself, or on
video, or in print, it has most often tended to focus on African-American
issues. Yet in reviewing racism and ethnicity in U.S. television
we need not downplay four centuries of African-American experience
and contribution in order to recognize as well the importance of
Native American nations, Chicanos and other Latinos, and Asian-Americans
in all their variety. Thus, in this essay, attention will be paid
so far as research permits to each one of these four groupings,
although there will not be space to treat the important sub-groupings
(Haitians, Vietnamese, etc.) within each. The discussion will commence
with representation, mainstream and alternative, and then move on
to employment patterns in the TV industry, broadcast and cable.
The conclusion will introduce the so far under-researched question
of racism, ethnicity and TV audiences. Before doing so, however,
a more exact definition is needed of racism in the U.S. context.
Firstly, racism is expressed along a connected spectrum, from the
casual patronizing remark to the sadism of the prison guard, from
avoidance of skin-contact to the starving of public education in
inner cities and reservations, or to death-rates among infants of
color higher than in some Third-World countries. Racism does not
have to take the form of lynching, extermination camps or slavery
to be systemic, virulent--yet simultaneously dismissed as of minor
importance or even as irrelevant by the white majority.
racism may stereotype groups differently. Class is often pivotal
here. Claimed success among Asian-Americans and Jews is attacked
just as is claimed inability to make good among Latinos and African-Americans.
Multiple Native American nations with greatly differing languages
and cultures are squashed into a generic "Indian" left behind by
history. Gender plays a role too: white stomachs will contract at
supposedly truculent and violence-prone men of color, but ethnic
minority women get attributed with pliancy--even, for white males,
to presuming their special eagerness for sexual dalliance.
racism in the United States is binary. You are either a person of
color or you are not. People of mixed descent are not permitted
to confuse the issue, but belong automatically to a minority group
of color. Ethnic minority individuals whose personal cultural style
may be read as emblematic of the ethnic majority's, are quite often
responded to as betrayers, and thus either warmly as the "good exception"
by the white majority, or derisively as "self-hating" by the minority.
as Entman (1990) and others have argued, racist belief has changed
to being more supple, and "modern" racism has shed its biological
absolutism. In the "modern" version the Civil Rights movement won,
racial hatred is pass, talented individuals now make it.
ethnic minority poverty is solely the minority's overall cultural/attitudinal
fault. There are many other dimensions to racism, such as the economic.
Indeed, race relations in U.S. life still closely resemble the depth
and width of the Grand Canyon, but rarely its beauty.
In discussing mainstream representation, it is vital to note two
issues. One is the importance of historical shifts in the representation
of these issues, especially since the mid-1980s, but also at certain
watermark junctures before then. The second is the importance of
taking into account the entire spectrum of what television provides,
from ads (perhaps 20% of TV content) to weathercasting, from sitcoms
to documentaries, from sports to MTV, from non-English language
programming to religious channels, from old films to breaking news
to talk shows. Too many studies have zeroed in on one or other format
and then taken it as representative of the whole. Here we will try
to engage with the spectrum, although space and available research
will put most of the focus on whites and blacks in mainstream television
news and entertainment.
as MacDonald has shown, U.S. television perpetuated U.S. cinema,
radio, theatre and other forms of public communication and announced
people of color overwhelmingly by their absence. It was not that
they were malevolently stereotyped or denounced. They simply did
not appear to exist. If they surfaced, it was almost always as wraiths,
silent black butlers smiling deferentially, Chicano field-hands
laboring sweatily, past Indian braves whooping wildly against the
march of history. Speaking parts were rare, heavily circumscribed,
and typically an abusive distortion of actual modes of speech. But
the essence of the problem was virtual non-existence.
the TV industry collaborated to a marked degree with the segregation
that marks the nation, once legally and residentially, now residentially.
Programs and advertisements that might have inflamed white opinion
in the South were strenuously avoided, partly in accurate recognition
of the militancy of some opinions that might lead to boycotts of
advertisers, but partly yielding simply to inertia in defining that
potential as a fact of life beyond useful reflection.
programs shunned were rarely in the slightest degree confrontational,
or even suggestive of horrid interracial romance. The classic case
was the Nat "King" Cole Show, which premiered on NBC in November
1956, and which was eventually taken off for good in December of
the following year. A Who's Who of distinguished black as well as
white artists and performers virtually gave their services to the
show, and NBC strove to keep it alive. But it could not find a national
sponsor, at one point having to rely on no less than 30 in order
to be seen nationwide. Cole himself explicitly blamed the advertising
agencies' readiness to be intimidated by the White Citizens Councils,
the spearhead of resistance to desegregation in southern states.
was not the only occasion that African Americans were seen on the
TV screen in that era. A number of shows, notably The Ed Sullivan
Show, made a point of inviting black performers on to the screen.
Yet entertainment was only one thin slice of the spectrum. Articulate
black individuals, such as Paul Robeson, with a clear critique of
the racialization of the United States, were systematically excluded
from expressing their opinion on air, in his case on the pretext
he was a Communist (and thus apparently deprived of First Amendment
This generalized absence, this univocal whiteness, was first really
punctured by TV news coverage of the savage handling of Civil Rights
demonstrations in the latter 1950s and early 1960s. Watching police
dogs, fire-hoses and billy-clubs unleashed against unarmed and peaceful
black demonstrators in Montgomery, Alabama, and seeing white parents--with
their own children standing by their side--spewing obscenities and
racially charged curses at Dr King's march through Cicero, Illinois,
and hurling rocks at the marchers: these TV news images and narratives
may still have portrayed African Americans as largely voiceless
victims, but they were nonetheless able to communicate their dignity
under fire, whereas their white persecutors communicated their own
monstrous inhumanity. The same story repeated itself in the school
desegregation riots in New Orleans in 1964 and Boston in 1974.
television since then made sporadic attempts to address these particular
white-black issues, such as Roots, The Cosby Show, and Eyes
On The Prize, and through a proliferation of black newscasters
at the local level, but all the while cleaving steadfastly to three
traditions. These are, firstly, the continuing virtual invisibility
of Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans. Indeed, some studies
indicate that for decades Latinos have hovered around 1 to 2% of
characters in TV drama, very substantially less than their percentage
of the public. Hamamoto (1994), similarly, charges that "By and
large, TV Asians are inserted in programs chiefly as semantic markers
that reflect upon and reveal telling aspects of the Euro-American
characters." Secondly, the tradition of color-segregating entertainment
changed but little. Even though from the latter 1980s Black shows
began to multiply considerably, casts have generally been white
or black (and never Latino, Native or Asian). Thirdly, the few minority
roles in dramatic TV have frequently been of criminals and drug
addicts. This pattern has intensively reinforced, and seemingly
been reinforced by, the similar racial stereotyping common in "reality
TV" police shows and local TV news programs. The standard alternative
role for African Americans has been comic actor (or stand-up comic
in comedy shows). Ram'rez-Berg (1990), commenting upon the wider
(!) cinematic tradition of Latino portrayal, has identified the
bandit/greaser, the mixed-race slut, the buffoon (male and female),
the Latin lover and the alluring Dark Lady, as six hackneyed tropes.
(If Latinos are given more TV space, will the first phase merely
privilege the audience with negative roles in a wider spectrum?)
Let us examine, however, some prominent exceptions.
(1977; Roots: The Next Generations, 1979) confounded the
TV industry's prior expectations, with up to 140 million viewers
for all or part of it, and over 100 million for the second series.
For the first time on U.S. television some of the realities of slavery--brutality,
rape, enforced de-culturation--were confronted over a protracted
period, and through individual characters with whom, as they fought
to escape or survive, the audience could identify. Against this
historic first was the individualistic focus on screenwriter Alex
Haley's determined family, presented as "immigrant-times-ten" fighting
an exceptionally painful way over its generations toward the American
Dream myth of all U.S. immigrants. Against it too, was the emphasis
on the centuries and decades before the 1970s, which the ahistorical
vector in U.S. culture easily cushions from application to the often
devastating here and now. Nonetheless, it was a signal achievement.
Cosby Show (1984-92) was the next milestone. Again defeating
industry expectations, the series scored exceptionally high continuing
ratings right across the nation. The show attracted a certain volume
of hostile comment, some of it smugly supercilious. The fact it
was popular with white audiences in the South, and in South Africa,
was a favorite quick shot to try to debunk it. Some critics claimed
it fed the mirage that racial injustice could be overcome through
individual economic advance, others that it primly fostered Reaganite
conservative family values. Both were indeed easily possible readings
of the show within contemporary U.S. culture. Yet critics often
seemed to think a TV text could actually present a single monolithic
meaningfulness or set up a firewall against inappropriate readings.
critics missed the oasis-in-a-desert dimension of the series for
black viewers, representing a functional black family quietly confident
in being black. The critics appeared oblivious of the lilywhite
wasteland that had preceded the show. Most also missed the gate-opening
function of The Cosby Show. Their eyes were seemingly so
set on an overnight revolution in TV's racial discourses that they
could not acknowledge the pivotal difference made within the industry
by a show that combined being financially successful and never demeaning
Gray, one of the few critics to acknowledge this industrial role
of the show in opening the gate to a large number of black television
shows and to new professional experience and openings for many black
media artists, is also correct in characterizing The Cosby Show
as assimilationist. It hardly ever directly raised issues of
social equity, except in interpersonal gender relations. Nonetheless,
in the context of the nation's and the industry's history, the show
could have been exquisitely correct--and never once have hit the
way of response to Gray's reading, two further complicating dimensions
are worth comment. The new job-openings were valuable, but were
often in the gangxploitation genre of New Jack City. One
step forward, one to the side. And "assimilation"--in the sense
of showing how African Americans share many values common across
the United States--is still a novel message, Lesson 1, to far too
many of the majority. In turn, the African American specificities
that continue to contribute so much to the nation are Lessons 2
and following for many citizens of every ethnic background.
On The Prize (1988; 1990) is much more straightforward to discuss.
A brilliant documentary series on the Black Civil Rights movements
from 1954-85, it too marked a huge watershed in U.S. television
history. Partly its achievement was to bring together historical
footage with movement participants, some very elderly, who could
supply living oral history. Partly, too, its achievement was that
producer-director Henry Hampton consistently included in the narrative
the voices of segregationist foes of the movement, on the ground
that the story was theirs too. This gave the opportunity for self-reflexion
within the White audience rather than easy self-distancing.
the series was on PBS and thus never drew the kind of audience summoned
up by Roots. The public appetite for documentaries was also
at something of a low toward the end of the century, as opposed
to Europe and Russia where the documentary form was much more popular.
Eyes' influence would be bound to be slower, though significant,
through video rentals and college courses. Its primary significance
for present purposes is its demonstration of what could be done
televisually, but was never contemplated to be undertaken by the
commercial TV companies.
1996, PBS screened a similar four-part series, Chicano!,
by documentarist Hector Galan on the Chicano social movements in
the South-West, a story much less known even than the Black civil
then were turning points, not in the sense of an instantaneous switch,
but in terms of setting a high water mark that expanded the definition
of the possible in U.S. TV. The other turning point was the proliferation,
mostly locally, of black and indeed of other ethnic minority group
individuals as newscasters. Thus although newscasters rarely had
the clout to write their own bulletin scripts, let alone decide
on news priorities for reporting or investigation, they had the
cachet of a very public, trusted role. To that extent, this development
did carry considerable symbolic prestige for the individuals concerned.
as time went on and racial news values and priorities remained the
same or similar despite the change in faces, did the limits of this
development begin to become more apparent. At about the same time,
most news bulletins, especially locally, were deteriorating into
infotainment, with lengthy weather and sports reports incorporated
into the half hour. Perhaps television news over the longer term
will be increasingly vacated of its traditional significance in
the United States, and will become more a reaffirmation of community
and localism, with ethnic minority newscasters as a rather indeterminate
entity within the endeavor.
representations became somewhat more frequent after The Cosby
Show's success. In part this change was also due to the steadily
declining price of video-cameras and editing equipment, to support
from federal and state arts commissions, and to developments in
cable TV, especially public access, which opened up more scope for
independent video-makers to develop their own work, some of which
could be screened locally and even nationally.
however, goes so far as to forecast cable TV's multiple channels
as an almost automatic technical solution to the heritage of unequal
access for African Americans. The "technological fix" he envisages
would not of itself address the urgent national need for dialogue
on race and whiteness in television's public forum. Nor does it
seem to bargain with the huge costs of generating mostly new product
for even a single cable channel.
In Living Color (Keenan Ivory Wayans)
in all, though, the emergence of a variety of shows such as Frank's
Place, A Different World, In Living Color, and of cable and
UHF channels such as Black Entertainment Television,
Univision, and Telemundo, together with leased ethnic group
program-slots in metropolitan areas, did begin to change the standard
white face of television at the margins, even though the norm remained.
new developments were often contradictory. The often cheap-shot
satirization of racial issues on In Living Color, the question
Gray and others raise concerning BET programming as often simply
a black reproduction of white televisual tropes, the role of black
sitcoms and stand-up comics as a new version of an older tradition
in which blackness is acceptable as farce, are all conflicted examples.
contradictory example is Univision, effectively dominated by Mexico's
near-monopoly TV giant Televisa. Its entertainment programs are
mostly a secondary market for Televisa's products, and while they
are certainly popular, they have had little direct echo of Chicano
or other Latino life in the United States. Its news programs have
been dominated by Cuban political expatriates, whose obsession with
the Castro regime and whose frequent avoidance of Chicanos and Mexican
issues have often raised hackles within the largest Latino group.
At the same time, as Rodr'guez (1996) has shown, Univision's news
program has cultivated--for commercial reasons of mass appeal--a
pan-ethnic Spanish that over time may arguably contribute to a pan-Latino
U.S. cultural identity, rather than the Chicano, Caribbean, Central
and South American fragments that constitute the Latino minority.
It is difficult, too, to summarize a sense for the profusion of
single features and documentaries, either generated by video-artists
of color, or on ethnic themes, scattered as they are over multiple
tiny distributors or self-distributed. Suffice it to say that distribution,
cable channels notwithstanding, is the hugest single problem that
such work encounters. (Sources of information on these videos include
Asian-American CineVision, the Black Filmmakers Foundation, and
National Video Resources, all in New York City, and Facets Video
examining alternatives, finally, we need to take stock of some of
the mainstream alternatives to segregated casts, such as one of
the earliest, Hawaii Five-O, and Miami Vice and NYPD
Blue. The first was definitely still within the Tonto tradition
insofar as the ethnic minority cops were concerned ("Yes boss" seemed
to be the limit of their vocabulary). Miami Vice's tri-ethnic
leads were less anchored in that tradition, although Edward James
Olmos as the police captain often approximated Captain Dobey in
Starsky and Hutch, apparently only nominally in charge. NYPD
Blue carried over some of that tradition as regarded the African
American lieutenant's role, but actually starred two Latinos in
the three key police roles in the second series. (One was played
by an Italian American, in a continuing variation on "blackface"
seemingly popular with casting directors.) A central issue, however,
raised once more the question of "modern" racism. A repetitive feature
of the show was the skill of the police detectives in pressuring
people they considered guilty to sign confessions and not to avail
themselves of their legal rights.
comments are in order. One is that a police team is shown at work,
undeflected by racial animosity, strenuously task-driven. It is
a theme with its roots in many World War II movies, though in them
ethnicity was generally the focus rather than race. The inference
plainly to be drawn was that atavistic biases should be laid aside
in the face of clear and present danger, with the contemporary "war"
being against the constant tide of crime.
a second issue, passed over in silence, yells for attention. A vastly
disproportionate number of prisoners, in relation to their percentage
of the nation, are African Americans and Latinos. On NYPD Blue
we see firm unity among white, black and Latino police professionals
in defining aggressive detection and charge practices as legitimate
and essential, even though it is procedures like those that, along
with racially differential sentencing and parole procedures, have
often helped create that huge imbalance in U.S. jails. A war is
on, and hard-headed, loyal cops in the firing line, know it.
the paradigm of "modern" racism, co-opting ethnic minority individuals
into police work made a great deal of sense (the security industry
was living proof). Any TV reference was extremely rare to the fierce
racial tensions often seething between police officers. How much
had changed? It was like the energetically gyrating multi-racial
perpetual-party dancers of MTV: a heavily sugared carapace clamped
on a very sour reality.
Television Industry and Race Relations
Except for a clutch of public figures led by Bill Cosby, CNN's Bernard
Shaw, talk-show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo, and moderately
influential behind-the-camera individuals such as Susan Fales, Charles
Floyd Johnson, and Suzanne de Passe, and local newscasters, the
racial casting of television organizations has been distinctly leisurely
in changing. Cable television has the strongest ratio of minority
personnel, but this should be read in connection with its lower
pay-scales and its minimal original production schedules. Especially
in positions of senior authority, television is still largely a
The Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) statistics are often
less than helpful in determining the true picture, and represent
a classic instance of bureaucratic response to the demand to collect
evidence by refusing to focus with any precision on the matter in
hand. Thus according to the FCC's 1994 figures the two seeming top
categories (Officials and Managers, and Professionals) showed percentages
of 13.5 and 18.5 ethnic minority employees. Moderately encouraging
it would seem in the latter case, against a national percentage
of around 25% people of color, until the tiresome question is posed
as to what roles are covered by those categories. At that juncture,
fog descends. Only at the time of writing is more careful research,
sponsored by the Radio & Television News Directors Association,
about to delve into those ragbag categories and disaggregate them.
What can be said from FCC statistics is that Sales Workers positions
were only 13.3% occupied by people of color as of 1994. This sounds
rather a low-level job, until it is recalled that this is the prime
category from which commercial station managers are recruited. Public
TV had 11.1% for that year. The statistic does not bode well for
the future. By contrast, the Laborers category in commercial TV
in 1994 was 56.1% non-majority.
NTIA data show that ownership of commercial TV stations was in ethnic
minority hands in just 31 out of 1155 cases across the United States
in 1994. Six were in California, six in Texas, three in Michigan,
two in Illinois, and one each in Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine,
Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Oregon,
Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington D.C. and Wisconsin.
question then at issue is how far this absence from positions of
TV authority determines the mainstream representation patterns surveyed
above. Abstractly conceived, if no customary formats or tropes were
changed, and none of the legal, financial and competitive vectors
vanished, a television executive stratum composed entirely of ethnic
minority individuals would likely proceed to reproduce precisely
the same patterns.
this is abstract, and only helps to shed light on the pressures
to conform faced by the few ethnic minority individuals scattered
through the TV hierarchy. Sociologically, were their executive numbers
to increase even to within hailing distance of their percentage
of the nation, a much wider internal dialogue would be feasible
concerning the very limits of the possible in television. We come
back, in a sense, to Cosby.
the proportion of black and Latino viewers was higher than the national
average, and since between them they accounted in 1995 for at least
$300 billion consumer spending a year, the economic logic of advertising
by the mid-1990s seemed to point toward increasing inclusiveness
in TV. How this clash between economic logic and inherited culture
would work out, remained to be seen.
come to the most complex question of all, namely how viewers process
televisual content related to race and ethnicity. It has already
been argued that decades of daily programs have mostly underwritten
the perception of the United States as at core a white nation with
a white culture, rather than a pluricultural nation beset by entrenched
problems of ethnic inequity. Television fare has obviously not been
a lone voice in this regard, but nor has it been anything resembling
a steady opposition voice. This judgment obviously transcends interpretations
of particular programs or even genres. It is sufficiently loose
in formulation to leave its plausible practical consequences open
to extended discussion. Yet given the ever greater dominance of
television in U.S. everyday culture, TV's basic vision of the world
can hardly be dismissed as impotent.
was a vision likely to reassure the white majority that it had little
to learn or benefit from people of color. Rather, TV coverage of
immigration and crime made it much easier to be afraid of them.
George Bush's manipulation of the Willie Horton case for his 1988
campaign commercial had even the nation's vice-president and president-to-be
drawing on, and thus endorsing, the standard tropes of local TV
not all of the White majority were to be found clicked into position
behind that vision. However, it was ever harder to muster a coherent
and forward-looking public debate about race, whiteness and the
nation's future, given TV's continuing refusal, in the main, to
step up to the plate. It was not the only agency with that responsibility,
nor the unique forum available. But TV was and is crucial to any
solution. Should the conclusion be that TV's dependence on so many
other national forces--advertisers, corporations, government--have
reduced its generals to the power-level of Robert Burns' "wee, cowering,
The detailed analysis of audience reception of particular shows
or series is a delicate business, linking as it will into the many
filaments of social and cultural life for white audiences and for
audiences of color. It is, though, a sour comment on audience researchers
that so little has been done to date to explore how TV is appropriated
by various ethnic minority audiences, or how majority audiences
handle ethnic themes. Commercial research has been content simply
to register viewer levels by ethnicity; academic research, with
a scatter of exceptions has rarely troubled to explore ethnic diversity
in processing TV, despite the outpouring of ethnographic audience
studies in the 1980s and 1990s. Truly, as DuBois forecast in 1903,
the color line has been the problem of the twentieth century.
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