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Activists Harm Black Actors' Aspirations By: Damon Standifer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, June 29, 1999


Los Angeles Times | June 28, 1999


EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON'S recent L.A. Times article ("It's Time for Honest Portrayals," June 14), in which he chides the TV networks for not scheduling any new shows featuring African Americans ("ethnic cleansing," he calls it), struck me as the height of hubris. If I may be frank, speaking as an African-American actor, I would like to say to Hutchinson that he has a lot of nerve. Hutchinson and the other self-appointed spokes-people for the black community are a big reason why the TV networks have shied away from using black actors in major roles. Time and again, TV shows that feature black leads are targeted for protests by these black activists. Last October, Hutchinson was arguing (successfully, it would appear) for the cancellation of UPN's "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer." Now, after torpedoing a show with a black lead, he shows up again complaining about the lack of shows with black leads. Hubris, indeed. This cycle is repeated time and again by black activists who protest against shows with black leads, then protest the lack of shows with black leads. Were I cynical enough, I'd suggest that there was something calculated about it, a way these activists can forever stay in the headlines.

Every type of "black" show has been protested: If a show portrays wealthy black people, it's criticized for ignoring the plight of poor ones. If a show features poor black people (as in South Central), it's criticized for stereotyping black people as poor. The lack of interracial love stories is protested, but so, too, are interracial love stories (as in the recent controversies over Ally McBeal and ER). Black sitcoms are protested (as in The Wayans Bros.), and protests against the lack of black voice-actors in animation are followed by protests against black voice-actors (as in The PJs and the Jar Jar Binks character in The Phantom Menace). In past years there were complaints that the TV show Seinfeld never featured a black lead. But, honestly, which Seinfeld lead could have been cast as an African American without drawing protests from people like Hutchinson: The spastic, bug-eyed Kramer? The chronically unemployed, lazy George? The sexually promiscuous, self-centered Elaine? Had these characters been black, Seinfeld wouldn't have lasted one season.

It's gotten to the point that the networks don't want to risk hiring black actors as leads because we are seen as a liability. Why would a network want to spend millions of dollars to produce and promote a show that will probably be taken off the air due to protests? Unless African American activists abandon the destructive tactic of trying to ban shows they don't like, actors like me will continue to suffer the consequences.

I speak from experience: Several years ago I lost a role in which I'd already been cast because the producers felt they might appear racist if a black actor played that part. African-American activists seem completely out of touch with the level of fear that exists among TV-industry people that they might be called "racist." It's this fear that has hindered "colorblind casting," the noble goal of which is to make race secondary to talent when casting a role. This goal is impossible when activists insist that every black actor must play a role that is a "positive image"—a "credit to the race," to use an antiquated term. This is a burden that white actors don't carry, so white actors can be cast in anything, with no fear of angry protests and advertiser boycotts.

African-American activists say that this double standard is necessary, because black people still face racism. So what? So do other groups. So do Jews. But imagine if Jewish activists had prevented Jews from taking jobs that could possibly contribute to Jewish stereotypes. The vicious, slanderous stereotype of the Jew as "evil capitalist" tormented Jews in Europe for centuries, but what would the state of the Jewish community be today if Jews had refused to take jobs in "capitalist" enterprises because of a fear of perpetuating this stereotype? What if Jews had refused to work in the entertainment business out of fear of perpetuating the stereotype that "Jews control Hollywood"? Jews refused to allow fear of anti-Semitism to dictate what jobs they could take. The activists in my community could learn a lot from their example. Stop hobbling black actors. Stop insisting that we only take "approved" roles. Stop defining us by our race.

Fifty years ago, whites told us that we could only be on TV if we were "a credit to our race." Now that same line comes from our own people . . . and that's a tragedy.

 

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved


Mr. Standifer currently works as an actor in Los Angeles.


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