It’s been a banner year for lambasting the deplorable state of race and television. Lately it seems you can pick a fight just about anywhere on the dial. Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes recently got into a Twitter dust-up by calling out the lily-white casting of ABC’s Bunheads. That was a minor skirmish compared to the scorched-earth campaign of criticism waged over Lena Dunham’s Girls this past spring. Mad Men is too white. Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns is too black. Then there are your reality-TV disasters: VH1’s Basketball Wives isn’t doing the modern black woman any favors, and we’ve got lawyers suing ABC over The Bachelor because it casts only white contestants, a lawsuit that must represent a new low for civil rights litigation in America.
Friday Night Lights and The Wire both offered intelligent, thoughtful portraits of race. For laughs, we’ve still got the smart and subtle humor of NBC’s Community,
FX’s Louie, and Comedy Central’s Key & Peele. But in what is supposedly a new age of groundbreaking, “novelistic” television drama, one of the most dramatic threads of America’s cultural history is strangely absent. We did Mad Men, the well-lit, glossy “before” picture of white America, taken just as the civil rights movement was about to upend Madison Avenue’s cushy status quo. And we’ve done The Wire, the gritty “after” shot of urban America in the wake of white flight and the drug war. But we skipped the middle chapter. We haven’t done the part about how America stopped being Mad Men and turned into The Wire.
The reason this chapter is missing—both from television and from our collective pop-culture narrative in general—is because it’s ugly. Most of America’s history with race is ugly, but it’s ugly in a way that’s tailor-made for Hollywood’s preferred mode of storytelling: good guys and bad guys. Protagonist and antagonist. Conflict and resolution. The North fought the South and Lincoln freed the slaves—The End. The noble Negro children of Birmingham stood up to Bull Connor, Martin Luther King went to the mountaintop, and white people learned a lesson—The End. Is this a reductive way to look at history? Yes. But it can be done; the narrative building blocks are there. The Civil War and the civil rights movement are both more complex than we typically portray them, but both were fundamentally matters of right vs. wrong, and anything that’s a matter of right vs. wrong can generally be reduced to good guys and bad guys.
Then we come to the story of integration in the 1970s. Where desegregation was a matter of right vs. wrong, integration was a matter of who gets what. Once the walls of Jim Crow came down, blacks had won access to society’s resources. But what did that mean, exactly? How much were they owed as compensation for America’s crimes? How much were white people willing to share? How much could white people be compelled to share? In a world of economic scarcity, these were messy, divisive questions; nobody had put a great deal of forethought into the answers. Meanwhile, inside the black community, integration appealed to those who wanted to share in the opportunities across the color line, but the idea of an open society threatened to undermine the power of black leaders and businessmen whose status was rooted in a separate, blacks-only world. The scramble over who gets what pitted not just black against white, but black against black as well.
The real moral of the story is that when you create a corrupt system, there just aren’t a whole lot of good moral choices to be made, and it’s very difficult to be the person who makes them. The story of racial integration isn’t good guys and bad guys, but it is full of good and decent, if imperfect, people, white and black, mostly just trying to take care of their families in a world of limited choices. Most people are not the architects of the problem; they’re trying to make a life inside the problem, and in the simple act of looking for a good school they’re helping to perpetuate the system that keeps the country divided. Which is why it’s so necessary to tell this story, but if we’re really, really honest about what happened in the wake of Jim Crow’s demise, white conservatives, white liberals, urban political machines, black businessmen—nobody comes out clean, and a lot of the assumptions underpinning today’s racial politics get challenged. Which may be why we haven’t wanted to look too closely.
Maybe I’m oversimplifying. But then oversimplification seems like it’s been the point. Look at the pop culture references to race that date from the integration era. There’s All in the Family, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. There’s the blaxploitation classics like Shaft and Uptown Saturday Night. It’s comic, pulpy fare, for the most part. What’s the lasting cultural landmark on race from the 1970s? That would be Roots. A classic, and an important one, but, again, one that takes refuge in the past, in the moral certainty of right vs. wrong, averting our gaze from the messy reality of who gets what in the present.
Until very recently, the storytelling tools of television weren’t that sophisticated. Short of something like Roots, the complex issue of race had to be shoehorned into Very Special Episodes of Charles in Charge. But our new, post-Sopranos era of series TV has evolved into the perfect medium to tell the story of race. Good television is now capable of going beyond good guys and bad guys. We can do moral ambiguity on a grand narrative scale now. And viewers seem to love it.