by: Alvin Poussaint, M.D.
Dr. Alvin Poussaint examines the history of African-Americans on television, and the continuing racial discrimination.
Noticing the Difference
“Why is TV so segregated?” A 16-year-old white high-school student asked this very question after a talk I gave recently on multiculturalism in American society. She pointed out that most black sitcoms today are shown by the newer networks (i.e., UPN, the WB) while the mainstream channels (i.e., NBC, CBS, ABC) present white sitcoms with occasional appearances by minorities. In contrast, dramas such as ER, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order have a few African Americans and Hispanics in ongoing roles. She also correctly noted the scarcity of Latinos and Asians on American TV and the absence of “Latino sitcoms” or “Asian sitcoms.”
The History of Blacks on TV
Overall, the position of blacks on TV is better than that of other minorities, but it is hampered by the racial conflicts and segregation that are embedded in American society. Historically, black actors have been grouped stereotypically and assigned to comedy and buffoonery. Black TV dramas, for instance, have rarely attracted a large white audience, with the exception of the Roots mini-series (first broadcast in 1977). The image of blacks as comic clowns can be traced to the genre of black minstrelsy that was popular in the early 20th century. This style permeated the first all-black sitcom that appeared on TV in the 1950s — the silly and stereotypic Amos ‘n Andy Show — which was widely popular among whites and some blacks. The show was finally taken off the air after protests from blacks, including the NAACP.
With few exceptions, when TV executives produce black shows, they create black sitcoms that foster the image of segregation. Blacks are characterized as buffoons who are childlike and irresponsible. This stereotype originated during slavery and has been perpetuated in white minds, especially the belief that African Americans are inferior. The all-black sitcom – and so-called “authentic” black humor – fosters the idea that blacks and whites are so different culturally that integration is undesirable and unworkable. If whites perceived blacks as they are presented in such sitcoms, they would be disinclined to live next door to or socialize with them. These shows suggest that a segregated society is appropriate and acceptable. It is also telling that white Americans do not find all-black dramas appealing, even though the networks have tried to launch a number of such dramas over the years. White audiences apparently are comfortable seeing blacks in all-black sitcoms but not in all-black dramas, which depict the serious and human dimensions of the black experience, and do not reinforce common stereotypes.
The Role of Black Sitcoms
A series of popular black sitcoms appeared in the 1970s, including That’s My Mama, Good Times, Sanford and Son, What’s Happening?, and The Jeffersons. And although the appearance of sitcoms such as The Cosby Show in the 1980s, along with A Different World and Frank’s Place, set a new standard for eliminating stereotypic portrayals of blacks, these shows were nevertheless seen as black (read: segregated!) despite featuring white actors in various roles.
Since the 1980s, the major networks have lost interest in black sitcoms — partly because whites seemed less interested in watching them when they turned Seinfeld and Friends into hits. In the 1990s, new black sitcoms appeared in great numbers on the new network channels, which wanted to establish a foothold among black viewers. These shows drew high ratings among black households, which make up over 20 percent of regular TV viewers. Even with a low-white viewership, these shows made a profit.
The Fox network, for example, launched with black comedies like In Living Color, Martin, and Living Single to get established. Since then, the network has gone “mainstream” with sitcoms and shows designed to attract a large white audience. From the viewpoint of the networks and their advertisers, there is more profit to be made by attracting white viewers, since they represent the significant majority of our population. These practices have led civil rights organizations to accuse the networks of denying minorities equal opportunity as well as denying them a broader participation in general television programming.
Promoting Racial Equality on TV
TV networks often lack sensitivity in depicting the various ethnic groups and multiculturalism that make up American society. Neither all-white nor all-black sitcoms express the reality of daily life for most people. Fortunately, there are now better choices for quality minority programming on cable and premium channels, which are not as dependent as the networks on advertisers for revenue. It’s also a good idea for parents to help their kids become aware of the fact that TV doesn’t reflect reality.