Stay tuned or color issue will fade for networks

January 25, 2000|By Paul Delaney

SINCE the introduction of television, the captains of that medium have had a problem with it portrayal of nonwhites. Popular television at its inception dealt with us the same way its cousin, the movies, did, by repeating the racist stereotypes, from Stepin Fetchit to "Amos 'n Andy" and the Africans in Tarzan movies.

The image sent around the world of Native Americans was of wild savages scalping innocent whites, a reputation that survives today in many places.

A new biography of Nat King Cole details how one of the most popular singers of his day was treated horribly by TV moguls. Most TV stations in the South simply did not carry the program. It eventually died for lack of advertising support by companies that did not want to alienate white viewers.

Television still has a problem with us, and we sure do continue to have a problem with it. The attention now is on an agreement cooked up by a minority coalition that's apparently directed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I say "apparently" because non-black members of the coalition protested the NAACP's acting alone in announcing an agreement with the networks. Another agreement?

Broken promises

It prompted me to recall past agreements between minorities and white leaders in just about every major economic area, compacts that by now, if fully implemented, would have improved minority jobless rates, stimulated minority businesses to be as booming as white-owned ones (maybe even created some real minority industry and wealth) and left nonwhite communities in better shape than they are.

Thirty years of agreements between, for example, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and his Operation Breadbasket -- which was eventually succeeded by the Rainbow Coalition -- with myriad industry giants, from supermarket chains and automobile manufacturers to banks and labor unions -- go back and count them! -- should by now have resulted in the total integration of the American workplace. What happened?

That is a poignant question because the answer portends what can be expected with the current pact with television. A few jobs for a few people here and there, never enough to make a real difference. That is, if promises are kept at all.

Exactly one year ago, Scott Sassa, NBC's West Coast president, in the face of complaints, vowed that his network would deliver more diverse casting. Of course, it didn't, part of the reason for the coalition and the current agreement. Past agreements seem to have been written in invisible ink. They went the way of television executives -- a roster that changes with the sweeps seasons, but more musical chairs than genuine house cleaning.

Proof in living color

Promise them anything, but get them off our backs, seems to be the rule. Industry leaders never deny that things are bad -- the evidence stares back at us on daily television! Now, we have another agreement. The difficult task facing the coalition and the NAACP is monitoring and enforcing the agreement to guard against the inevitable backsliding by the television industry. We've been there so many times before.

Paul Delaney is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in Washington.

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