Two years ago, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called the television networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox -- "the most segregated industry in America." Mfume said, "There has to be an effective strategy. We have a clear timetable of events, and we would caution anyone who would suggest there is a decline in what we are doing. We are even more determined in our efforts to make the television industry more inclusive." Well, he's ba-a-ack.
Mr. Mfume remains unappeased. Recently, he held a press conference and again denounced the networks: "By any reasonable standard, African-Americans and all other races of people are underrepresented in almost every aspect of the television and film industry." Mfume declared, "I'm getting ready to do battle."
"Ready to do battle"? But, according to the Screen Actors Guild, blacks, who comprise 12 percent of the population, are cast in 14.8 percent of all roles on television and in movies. ABC says that 33.6 percent of new network hires went to minorities. Forty-one percent of Fox's prime-time series actors are minorities. CBS says that 29 percent of its actors are black.
Black actor Morgan Freeman once said, "I don't think Hollywood is racist; I think Hollywood lives and dies on greed. Jobs are not given because of race. They're predicated completely on money." In the 1990s, no actor appeared in more movies than black actor Samuel L. Jackson, with Whoopi Goldberg occupying the No. 3 spot in the '90s.
It turns out that before Mfume's latest blast at television's "lack of inclusion," he filmed a talk-show pilot for a division of NBC. When asked about this apparent conflict of interest, he turned Clinton-esque, "I would never admit or allow any conflict of interest even to be perceived if in fact any economic action is taken against any individual network which theoretically could be construed as a competitor (to NBC)." Huh? Does Mfume's "battle" include landing his own TV show? Just a question.
Mfume blames the lack of black decision-makers for television's racial wrong-headedness. "There are practically no people of color at the top," says Mfume. " ... There aren't any African-Americans who can green-light a show, hire and fire a director or make any real decisions."
Presumably, this racial insensitivity turns off and chases away blacks.
One problem. Where's the evidence? According to Black Entertainment Television, black households watch 50 percent more television than do white households. According to a 1994 National Center for Education Statistics survey, nearly half of black fourth-graders watch at least six hours of television a day. Meanwhile, less than one-sixth of white fourth-graders watch six hours or more of television per day. Given television's alleged racial insensitivity, lack of inclusion and off-putting programming, why do blacks watch so much of it? Assume you run a restaurant in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. You find, however, that your restaurant attracts far more blacks. Wouldn't you assume they, well, liked the food?
In his latest attack on Hollywood, Mfume talked about the power of television's "images" to shape self-perception. Given the alleged absent, unfair or insensitive portrayals of blacks, surely blacks suffer from a lack of self-esteem. But according to the American Association of University Women, black boys rank higher on self-esteem scales than do white boys. And Psychology Today finds black women happier with their self-images than white girls obsessed with the hopelessly unrealistic Barbie Doll image.
Besides, don't the "good guys" -- mostly Democrats -- run Hollywood? Name a liberal cause, and Hollywood backs it. Whether it's "good guy leftists" like Susan Sarandon or Ed Asner supporting the release of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal, or Sharon Stone publicly "giving up her guns" and urging others to do the same -- most in Hollywood support liberal causes like affirmative action and gun control and flat-out dislike Republicans. Are these the insensitive racists Mfume chooses to attack?
No one denies television's ability to influence. Name one self-respecting kid in the late '50s, early '60s who didn't ask his parents for a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Marlon Brando's performance in "A Streetcar Named Desire" made American teenagers rush out en masse to buy tight-fitting, white T-shirts.
But Mfume's alarmist views overstate television's power. The '50s and '60s featured warm, family-oriented fare: "Father Knows Best," "Leave It to Beaver," "I Love Lucy," "The Donna Reed Show," "Ozzie and Harriet." The programs celebrated the institution of marriage, with no divorce lawyers, separations or prenuptial agreements in sight. Still, America's divorce rate skyrocketed, with nearly one out of every two new marriages ending in divorce. Why didn't television stop that?
Again, black households watch more TV than do white households. Compared to some other groups, black children under-perform on standardized tests. Studies also show black children do less homework than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, the president of the NAACP seeks ways to make television more appealing to blacks.
Pass the Advil, please.