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Racial Advancement on TV: Is the Progress Depicted Well-Intentioned Fantasy?

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I've been noticing over the past several years a tendency for the Media to depict racial togetherness in a manner that doesn't come close to representing reality. For example, almost every prime-time television show features romantic inter-racial relationships, most notably between its Caucasian and African-American continuing characters. While there are certainly more such situations in our current life than in former decades, is it as prevalent as depicted? As commonplace so as not to be noticed or rarely discussed?

Here is a partial list of such shows on CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and CW, just from the last few seasons:

Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, ER, House, Boston Legal, Gossip Girl, Dirty Sexy Money, Bones, One Tree Hill, Everwood, Lost, Heroes ,The West Wing, Desperate Housewives, Chuck, Kings, Lipstick Jungle, 90210, Cold Case, Ugly Betty, Privileged, October Road and Brothers and Sisters.

In Brothers and Sisters, Sally Field's character, a middle-aged suburban widow, quickly falls for her son-in-law's campaign advisor, who is black. Likewise, her son-in-law, a moderate Republican U.S. Senator played by Rob Lowe, decides with his wife (Calista Flockhart) to aggressively pursue an expectant African-American woman to adopt her child.

In neither of these instances is there much, if any, talk about the implications. As if society were totally color blind, in particular the adoption situation, considering that almost everything else in the Lowe-Flockhart relationship refers to what is good or bad for his political career.

In 90210, the lead family has adopted an African-American, the son of a friend who has died, and no one bats an eyelash when he appears on the Beverly Hills campus alongside his adoptive white sister. Nor is there anything even remotely odd as he pursues and becomes romantically involved with a white girl at the school.

Nor when One Tree Hills' Antwon Tanner, as Skills, has an affair with Barbara Alyn Woods, who plays Deb Scott, the white mother of Nathan Scott, one of his best friends. It's the age difference that's the shocker. When Deb breaks the relationship off it is because she will never bear him a child. And, of course, even though it is set in North Carolina, Skills immediately takes up with another white girl without any thought or notice.

Again, I'm not saying we haven't evolved in our civil rights, nor that inter-racial relationships are not around us, but to the extent shown on TV series? In Gossip Girl every grouping has a rainbow assortment of races. Equal opportunity bitchiness on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace with the main high school clique consisting of white girls, black girls, Asian and Hispanic. As if life conforms to a quota system, which for the most part just isn't so.

The list goes on. Vanessa Williams, our first African-American Miss America, who in Ugly Betty dates mostly white men. Tom Berenger's character in October Road is immediately taken with an African-American small town college administrator. Private Practice star Kate Walsh's series brother, played by Grant Show, has an affair with her African-American medical practice partner played by Audra McDonald. All with nary a mention.

Why do they do it in such great numbers, when it goes against statistics, according to a 2007 piece by Harvard professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr:

White female-black male unions, though they increased from 0.1% in 1970 did so to just under half a percent in 2000. In the case of white male-black female marriages it remained under a tenth of a percent.

Among married whites, 0.4% choose to marry blacks and among married blacks, 4.6% intermarry with whites. More specifically, almost 6% of married African American men, and 2.9% of married African American women, have a white American spouse.

According to Table FG4 of the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006:

................................... White Wife............Black Wife............Asian Wife
White Husband............50,224,000..........117,000..............530,000
Black Husband..................286,000.......3,965,000................34,000
Asian Husband..................174,000..............6,000...........2,493,000

There is also a tendency to cast African-Americans in professional roles in far greater frequency than societal reality. On legal shows, there is a preponderance of lawyers and judges, whereas the 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey indicates in the category of lawyers that only 4.6% are African-American, and judges and magistrates comprise only 6.8%. Many black bosses are depicted, yet the BLS indicates only 6.4% are in management occupations and only 3.9% are employed as chief executives.

In the category lumping together physicians and surgeons, the BLS says that 6.2% are African-American. Statistically, almost 85% of all doctors are in non-surgical practice, which means that a bit less than one percent of all surgeons are black. Yet, Grey's Anatomy, which takes place in one hospital, features African-Americans in key surgical roles: the head of surgery, chief surgical resident and, in the first two seasons, one of the chief cardiac surgeons.

So, why is this? Is it a desire to be cool or to help speed up the progress by promoting racial integration into all walks of society? If so, it's a laudable exercise, but is it good drama? What would be wrong addressing prejudices as they exist instead of presenting a fanciful display that most viewers know fully well doesn't exist? It's great to have lofty goals and there've been great films and television dramas and comedies, which have drawn attention to injustice and discrimination and move us in the proper direction. However, portraying an inaccurate balance almost does the opposite, giving us reassurance that things are okay and that discriminatory practices fed by racial prejudices are in short supply.

Yes, we live in an era of the first biracial United States President and two recent African-American secretaries of state. But there's currently only one African-American U.S. Senator out of six in our entire history, and there are only two black governors, one of whom ascended to the office, out of only four in our nation to date.

In the case of Barack Obama, he is almost always mentioned in our country as an African-American, though interestingly abroad, such as in Britain, he is referred to as biracial. I mention this, because until adulthood there was little in his life other than outward appearance to identify himself as black. He didn't grow up in a mixed household; his Kenyan father was almost entirely absent. He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia by his white mother and white grandparents, attending school mostly surrounded by whites and Asians and Hawaiians.

Yet, in spite of his cultural upbringing and the fact that he is equally Caucasian, he chose to emphasize his African-American side when pursuing a career. Why? Yes, he had African-American features, but how much experiential identification did he have with the community? Even if he determined to explore and embrace that side of his heritage, why do so in the fullest sense, working in Chicago black neighborhoods and attending a black church unless it was evidently more gainful to pursue success in a white world as a brilliant African-American man than to have attempted to do so from the middle ground? He was surely aware that life was full of prejudices -- even in the nineties and at the turn of the new millenium.

They are still among us, but the Media continues to distort reality, as it purports to portray progress by disproportionately reflecting aspects of our society in a dramatic context.

Our attorney general, Eric Holder, Jr., who is the first African-American to hold that office, gave a speech in February marking Black History Month, widely reported on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News, a portion of which reinforces my position. He, somewhat controversially, pointed out that we are "in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." Holder said we often shy away from discussion of race, and reminded us that outside of the workplace there isn't much socializing between blacks and whites. "On Saturdays and Sundays," he said, "America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago. This is truly sad."

You'd never know that watching TV.

Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com