September 23, 2008

Lack of diversity = discrimination

In Race in Space and Elsewhere, Eric Stoller implied that the US astronaut corps isn't as diverse as it should be. Critics responded that a lack of diversity isn't necessarily evidence of discrimination. It could be that minorities simply aren't as qualified as white people to perform various jobs.

We can't be sure what goes on at NASA without a lot of investigation. But we can be sure in the entertainment field. This field is familiar to most people and it operates under a microscope. Let's see what it tells us about diversity.

Few Natives in Hollywood

We know there are lots of talented Native writers and actors, yet Native people and stories rarely make it into movies and TV shows. Meanwhile, the people and stories that do make it onto the screen are inevitably a mixed bag. Many of them are mediocre or worse and deservedly fail.

When you press them, Hollywood producers even admit the problem. They go with what's familiar and what they think will sell. They can't find Native talent and don't know where to look. They're afraid of taking a risk so they don't even try.

In other words, they're intentionally or unintentionally perpetuating a racist system. They have their reasons, but their reasons amount to, "We don't care enough to change the system. We're comfortable in a system where white males decide who succeeds and fails."

This is exactly what we're talking about when we refer to structural racism. It's not a few aberrant individuals who don't like minorities and refuse to hire them. It's a whole system of beliefs and assumptions with the effect of keeping whites in power and minorities in their place.

Evidence of discrimination

The well-scrutinized entertainment industry provides evidence of discrimination:

Generation Mix:  Youth TV Takes the Lead in Diversity Casting“One-third of the U.S. population is now nonwhite,” said Ms. Chase, one of a handful of prominent African-American producers in Hollywood. “That is reflected in the Disney Channel projects because they are committed to diversity. It has been a priority for them all along.”

None of which should be particularly surprising in the 21st century, except that television in general seems to be caught in one of a series of repeating cycles in which diversity all but disappears from the small screen.

Consider, as a contrast, what the red carpet will look like at next month’s Primetime Emmy awards ceremony. Of the 26 men nominated for Emmys for lead or supporting actor in a drama, comedy or mini-series, all are white, most of Anglo-Saxon descent.

The record of diversity is slightly better among women. Of the 15 nominees for lead actress in a drama, comedy or mini-series, two are members of ethnic minorities: America Ferrera, who won in the comedy category last year for “Ugly Betty,” and Phylicia Rashad, nominated for the television movie “A Raisin in the Sun.” Three of the 10 nominees for supporting actress are members of minority groups as well: Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Vanessa Williams of “Ugly Betty.”

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that those five women were all nominated for roles in programs broadcast on ABC, which, like the Disney Channel, is owned by the Walt Disney Company.

So 33% of Americans, but only 10% (5 of 51) Emmy nominees, are minorities. Again, we know there are tons of talented minority actors--Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Edward James Olmos, John Leguizamo, Penelope Cruz, Ken Watanabe, Joan Chen, Lucy Liu, et al.--so a lack of candidates isn't the problem. And Disney has more Emmy nominees than average because it's made a conscious effort to employ them.

What explains why Disney has succeeded with minority actors while the other networks haven't? Intentional or unintentional discrimination--i.e., structural racism--is the only logical explanation. And if the networks are inherently racist despite the scrutiny they're under, despite their liberal bent, it's likely NASA is also.

For more on the subject, see Diversity Lacking in Television.

Below:  The only prominent Native character on TV.


Anonymous said...

Hello ! I don't know where I may leave this comment, but I thought this news would interest you :

"Indian Country Today" has a report about a video game, called "RezWorld" and created to preserve Native American language. Its creator is Don Thornton, grandson of a master of Cherokee language, and founder of Thornton Media Inc, whose purpose is to give tools in order to "revitalize Native culture".

The report is here :

Of course, it attracted video game sites' attention. First, GameCulture ( ), then GamePolitics ( ).

Have a nice day !

gaZelbe said...

contrast RezWorld with the old game for the Atari 2600 called "Custer's Revenge"'s_Revenge

Its so awful I can barely talk about it. I was 10 years old when this came out and all my friends were obsessed with the Atari 2600. I heard about this game and I remember feeling confused and angry and ashamed.

I'm sure there is some white asshole out there that would tell me that my feelings are stupid and its just a game.

I guess I'm still angry.

Anonymous said...

"I'm sure there is some white asshole out there that would tell me that my feelings are stupid and its just a game."

Well I won't be this guy. And I think a lot of gamers (as well as non-gamers) will agree with you that "Custer's Revenge" is a horrible game. Indeed, if it's considered as one of the worst games of all time by various polls on game sites, there is a reason why.

Back to RezWorld, I forgot to put the link to the game and its creator's website, Thornton Media Inc. Here it is :

The game itself is available here :

Enjoy ! (and by the way, Rob, congratulations for your work and your dedication to Native American culture)

Rob said...

Thanks, Soldatlouis.

See RezWorld on YouTube for more on the subject you raised.