More than 40 years before we elected a black president – who is himself the product of an interracial marriage – Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn tackled the then-tricky topic in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. During a famous scene, Tracy ’s character says about the prospect of his white daughter marrying a black doctor:
“Anybody could make a case, a hell of a good case, against your getting married. The arguments are so obvious that nobody has to make them. But you're two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happened to have a pigmentation problem.”
“A pigmentation problem” was a polite – practically genteel – way of acknowledging that interracial marriage was, in 1967, the ultimate taboo topic. At the time of the film’s release, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states. The movie’s exploration of the hot-button issue was considered provocative and controversial, and earned the film 10 Oscar nominations and two wins.
Like “Oleanna,” David Mamet’s incendiary response to the Clarence Thomas hearings, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a wickedly current, ripped-from-the-headlines reflection of the country’s changing social mores and its polarizing views on race. The very year it debuted, Loving v. Virginia would rule that race-based legal restrictions on marriage were unconstitutional. And just a few months after it debuted, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and a casual reference to him was removed from the film for the duration of its run in theaters. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s tagline, “A love story of today,” was truly appropriate.
In 1991, the Will Smith vehicle “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” tackled interracial marriage in its own unique way with an episode titled “Guess Who’s Coming To Marry?” where the family is shocked to learn that a black aunt is engaged to a white man.
And in 2005, a loose remake of the Sidney Poitier movie called Guess Who, starring the late Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, also flipped the story around in a light-hearted examination of interracial marriage through the lens of black skepticism, not white. In the new millennium, after all, white skepticism is racist. But black skepticism is hilarious.
In short, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner didn’t just spawn myriad cultural derivatives. It prompted an ongoing discussion about race that spanned decades – indeed, almost half a century.
The latest iteration of the film classic debuted a couple Sundays ago to little notice on TLC, the infuriatingly addictive cable network that has produced some of reality television’s most compelling series, from “Jon & Kate Plus 8” to “Little People, Big World” to “LA Ink.”
Their new hour-long special is called “Guess Who’s Coming Over,” and is, according to their press release, “a social experiment that brings two lives with different experiences together under one roof.” In what serves as the pilot episode of a potential running series, “Viewers travel along with Chuck, an African American from New York City , as he moves in with the white family of David Turner, a self-described ‘redneck’ in Dawsonville , GA. ”
At the outset, we come upon a camouflaged Turner and his son shooting at glass jars in their yard, which looks predictably more like a pickup truck graveyard than a residence. David thinks that all blacks “like fried chicken and watermelon,” listen to rap music, and live in the ghetto. He likes to spin out his cars on the dirt driveway when he’s not shooting at deer in the woods or fetching logs with his Caterpillar backhoe loader. He is right out of central casting.
And Chuck is a black comedian from New York City, good-natured and open-minded, who gently and politely teaches the Turners that black people aren’t that bad after all.
On first blush, the premise appears to be something like this: Martian black man is dropped on planet Deliverance, and local humans prod suspicious alien with pitchforks.
If it sounds like something out of 1967, well, it is -- and it isn’t. The very suggestion that a black man and a white man would have to be “introduced” to one another via “social experiment” is more than a little outdated, as are some of David’s views. He doesn’t believe in “the mixing of races,” and doesn’t even want to participate in a hypothetical discussion about his daughter marrying a black man.
When I described the premise to Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an urban studies professor at Temple University and a Democratic strategist, he said, "This show sounds like an excuse to wallow in the same one-dimensional and stereotypical racial spectacles that have undermined healthy racial dialogue in our nation for decades."
But at the same time, it’s an evergreen and endearing story about two people from different places, learning about one another. David later accompanies Chuck to New York City , but not after shedding a few tears at the thought of leaving his wife and kids for a few days. He is overwhelmed by Times Square , and saddened when he seems to have an easier time hailing a taxi than Chuck does.
The producers of the series could have chosen a “David” and a “Chuck” that were more explosive if they wanted, but they didn’t.
“It’s TLC,” said Dustin Smith, the network’s director of publicity. “We’re not trying to make fun, or put people in awkward situations to boost ratings. That is not the mission of this network.” The goal was to explore a social issue with candor, respect, and a little humor. While it isn’t a searing docudrama, it is, like everything else on TLC, a learning experience. “I think mostly it explores ignorance,” said Smith. “And by ignorance, I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I simply mean ‘not knowing.’”
“Guess Who’s Coming Over” won’t be the last pop culture project to examine race. But it does raise an interesting question. This is 2009 – wasn’t all this supposed to go the way of the dinosaurs? The United States has a black president, after all – a black president who, for many, signaled the dawn of an exciting new era called “post-race America .”
The media seems to have been the biggest backer of this sociological phenomenon, and was quick to pontificate on just what it meant to elect a black president. The media’s visible shock (and awe) at the monumental event a seeming contradiction to their matter-of-fact declaration that racism is definitively over.
The New York Times and US News & World Report asked, respectively, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” and “Does Race Still Matter?”
In the LA Times, Michael Eric Dyson clarified that Obama’s election is not a post-racial artifact, but a post-racist one. “A post-racial outlook seeks to delete crucial strands of our identity; a post-racist outlook seeks to delete oppression that rests on hate and fear, that exploits cultural and political vulnerability.” So, believe it or not, Obama won’t single-handedly destroy race-at-large, but he may actually herald the end of racism.
And, because the white supremacist David Duke didn’t seem to hate Obama for his race (but because he was oversold and inauthentic), The New Republic’s Michael Crowley, confirmed, “Thus far, Obama is largely delivering on his promise as a post-racial candidate – and hilariously confounding the worldview of white supremacists at the same time.”
But as quick as the liberal (and largely white) media was to declare race a dead issue, some in the black community proved Obama didn’t solve the race issue at all. Before the election, Jesse Jackson mistakenly told a hot mic, and the rest of the world, that he thought Barack Obama was “talking down to black people.”
Rev. Jeremiah Wright conspired ad nauseam about the white government’s injustices toward blacks, contending that the United States invented the HIV virus “as a means of genocide against people of color.”
Even after the election, some blacks used Obama to turn not on whites, but against black Republicans who they viewed as traitors to their race. Jervey Tervalon, a black columnist for the LA Weekly, wrote “With the rise of Obama, Clarence [Thomas] is made even more ridiculous as a scold, reveling in the wretchedness of his upbringing — shucking and jiving for the right white folks who awarded him lifetime employment and the animosity of a nation of millions.” Thanks to Obama, racism, like the unexplainable black Republican, was officially a thing of the past.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner marginally but commendably dealt with black-on-black racism – Tillie, the family’s black cook disapproves of the interracial relationship, saying “I don't care to see a member of my own race getting above himself.” And now, black-on-black racism, as well as white-on-black and black-on-white racism, is just as problematic, in spite of the Obamas.
But the surprise isn’t that racism of all kinds still exists. The surprise is that people legitimately thought that the election of a black president had anything to do with race or that Obama will substantively affect race politics.
Barack Obama, in fact, never promised to do much of anything about racism or racial politics. He addressed race very broadly during the campaign – and only from an economic standpoint, not a social one. He denounced the idea of giving blacks blanket handouts. In fact, he talked less – far less – about lifting up black America than Hillary Clinton or John McCain. Or Bill Cosby, for that matter. Bill Clinton, for example, was both a candidate and president who actively tried to tackle race politics in America . Barack Obama is not.
And that was intentional – his “blackness” did much of the talking for him. He didn’t have to say he spoke for black people. He “is” black people. And he smartly knew that aggressively courting blacks was simply bad campaign strategy. Less than 13% of the country is black. Contrastingly, in Georgia , where David Turner had never met a black person, 30% of the state is black.
To that end, John Brown wrote in the American Renaissance (as quoted in The New Republic), “The reality is that white America has more invested in this candidate than does black America . [I]f Clinton wins, she will be more beholden to African Americans than Obama will be if he wins. She will owe them in a way that Obama [never] will.”
Liberal white America ’s desperate compulsion to inject meaning into the election of Barack Obama, which to them either proves we (or they?) aren’t racist anymore or, relatedly, that anyone who didn’t vote for him is racist, is something Shelby Steele has termed “White Guilt," and it's propelling the rhetoric that is driving this new-day argument. As Dr. Hill said, "The election of a black president should be an occasion to produce new, interesting, and progressive conversations about race in America ." Instead, all it's done so far is churned out the same old, tired, worse-for-wear tropes that existed 40 years ago: Republicans are racists (just ask Janeane Garofalo); Southerners are racists (even if loveable ones, like David Turner); and black Republicans are traitors (Clarence Thomas).
The idea behind "Guess Who's Coming Over" is relevant -- and I for one hope TLC continues the "social experiment" by comparing other disparate experiences to one another. But where race is concerned, the media needs to start taking an honest look at whether or not Barack Obama and the advent of a black president in the White House, is really prompting the kind of truly "new" discussions about race politics that it said he would. So far, there's no real suspense left in guessing just who's coming to dinner.