One Year Later: Just How White Were The Oscars And Why?

01/27/2017 12:26 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2017
(Mike Coppola / Getty Images)

One year ago the #OscarsSoWhite controversy went mainstream amidst outrage over a second consecutive year with no nominees of color in the Academy Awards’ major acting categories. Will Packer, producer of “Straight Outta Compton,” said it was, “a complete embarrassment to say that the heights of cinematic achievement have only been reached by white people.” Stereo Williams wrote that the Academy’s members were undervaluing worthy films featuring people of color like “Creed” and “Beasts of No Nation.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences responded by inviting a record number of new filmmakers, actors, and craftsmen, 41 percent of whom were minorities, into their organization.

This week the 2016 Oscar nominations were announced with vastly different, but perhaps expected results. Six Black actors were nominated along with Indian actor Dev Patel, and three films featuring minorities―”Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Fences”made the final cut for best picture. Jada Pinkett Smith, who boycotted the Oscars last year, said she was now “very proud to be part of the artistic community.” The prevailing opinion is that though there is still more work to do, meaningful progress has been made. But has it?

Were the Oscars really so white before? Is Hollywood less racist than it was one year ago? Let’s start with the numbers.

Yes, the Oscars really were so white…

From 2006 to 2015 there were 200 nominees in the Oscars’ major acting categories. If the breakdown of Oscar nominations matched the demographic breakdown of the United States one would expect approximately 127 white nominees, 33 Hispanic nominees, 24 Black nominees, and 9 Asian nominees. The actual breakdown was 173 white nominees, 8 Hispanic nominees, 18 Black nominees, and 1 Asian nominee. The Oscar nominees were much whiter than the country as a whole, with whites garnering about 36 percent more nominations than the demographics would suggest.

Interestingly, Black actors were not too drastically underrepresented, getting about three quarters of the expected nominations. Other groups were much further behind. Hispanics had just one quarter of the nominations expected and Rinko Kikuchi’s nomination for “Babel” was the only nomination for an Asian actor. The hash tag is accurate. Critics who called the Oscars so white were spot on.

That’s not necessarily because of present day racism

But it would be simplistic to conclude that the glut of white Oscar nominees was primarily the result of overt racism from Academy members because it is easy to come up with alternative explanations for #OscarsSoWhite. Nominations may be skewed in favor of whites because most British people are white and well-trained British actors have received more than their share of prominent roles in recent years. Screenwriters may be writing leading roles for white actors because they’re predominantly white and they’re writing what they know. Studios may want established white stars in leading roles simply to minimize financial risk. All are plausible explanations that are not rooted in any desire to oppress people of color.

But the most plausible explanation for why people of color are “behind” in the film industry is the same reason they are behind in many other professions—this country’s legacy of racism gave white people an enormous and unfair head start. Hollywood in particular is filled with legacies. Sons and daughters of actors, directors, and studio moguls benefit from their parents’ success and connections. Furthermore, entertainment is an impractical, arguably indulgent profession—one that affluent people with a financial safety net or abundant free time can more easily pursue.

Years of predominantly white Oscar nominees are undoubtedly the result of some type of racism, but it is more likely that the inequity stemmed from our country’s reprehensible history of racism than from some racist Academy members. If I had one criticism of #OscarsSoWhite other than the fact that it is pretty difficult to sympathize with Will Smith, it is that the anger was focused too much on the symptom—a lack of Oscar nominations—when it should have been directed at the underlying causes. Until we more effectively address racial disparities in income and education, professions are going to reflect those pervasive inequalities.

So while this year’s Oscar nominations may look like a victory for people of color, the more important, less sexy battles still need support. Hopefully the same stars who were outraged by last year’s Oscar nominations will continue to fight for critical progress where it really matters. Who knows what might happen if #GoodSchoolsSoWhite got as much attention as #OscarsSoWhite did.

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