Regina King's complaint about blacks being short-shrifted by the Emmys has me thinking about progress as well as obstacles.
She's right to complain that only about one in 20 top acting nominations for the Emmys has been for a non-white. It's the invisibility problem — not what I personally term "racism," but a definite legacy of it. Eddie Murphy creates six living, breathing characters of various ages and both genders in the Nutty Professor movies and it's largely thought of as one part latex, one part fat suits and one part "clever," while Jim Carrey can play just one character and be celebrated as a phenomenon for making funny faces.
I'm not sure, though, that I share King's dismay that Alaina Reed was not included in the "In Memoriam" Emmy salute sequence. Reed was a fine performer indeed — I even caught her in her theater days back in the '80s, singing a number about not having any rhythm; it was perfect. However, she was mainly known as Rose on 227, and while blacks who watched the show cherish the memory of the character — just as we enjoyed watching King herself grow up on the show — neither 227 nor Reed really crossed over.
The "In Memoriam" salute featured national icons; that is, Gary Coleman made the cut (upon which it also bears noting that Reed's Rose was a straight-man role). Television-viewing patterns differ by race, after all — for all of its iconic status, Seinfeld was of about as much interest to blacks as 227 was to whites.
However, it remains true that shiny, happy white people are currently more of interest in Emmy selections than they would be in an ideal America. And yet I am struck by how much closer we are to that ideal now than just 10 years ago. Back then, the NAACP was most famous for Kweisi Mfume's grading the networks on how many black people they were casting in their TV shows. The immediate result was not pretty.
In 2002, for example, King was in the sitcom Leap of Faith — a Sex and the City knockoff — cast as a BFF of Sarah Paulson (yeah, right). King did her usual great job, but she wasn't really given a character to play. Her job was just to Be Black as a gesture of "diversity," with it tossed in that she liked expensive things — not enough. Little shows like this take flight on the basis of chemistry, and throwing in someone solely on the basis of their color kills it. The show was gone in a heartbeat. I was glad King was working, but wished she'd been given something realer.
Around the same time, Wendell Pierce, now a star for playing Bunk on The Wire, was doing his best as the sidekick on a show starring Wings' Steven Weber. You can easily imagine how fragile the thing was already, but Pierce looked as if he had wandered in from some other show. Ordinarily, somebody like Kevin James would have been cast in the role, but there was that NAACP call for diversity. There was about as much spark between Pierce and Weber as there would be between Jackée Harry and Vanessa Redgrave.
Pierce, meanwhile, not only gave us the equally profound Bunk on The Wire but is now limning a similarly complex character on Treme. That is: In a glum depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans with as many black characters as white, Pierce plays an impecunious, divorced trombone player — and it's a national hit, with people blogging about each episode all over the country. What??? Try to imagine that as recently as 2000.
It's at the point that racial history is visible in small time intervals as well as big ones. Think about a typical NBC sitcom hit in the late '90s: Friends depicted a strangely vanilla Manhattan; black people were onetime guests now and then. Seinfeld was similar. Frasier was also a deeply white show. Occasionally there'd be a flop attempt at more of the same; shows like The Single Guy and The Naked Truth barely had more black people on them than there had been on Taxi or Cheers.
Today, on Thursday night, there is a sitcom lineup that makes all of that look like Our Miss Brooks, and the main thing is that none of it is even intended as a big deal. Community has not just one but two black leads, both with quirky and yet not deracialized characters to play. Parks and Recreation has a black secretary who can do more with one line than almost anybody on the show, and is again an individual in all ways — we're a long way from, say, Janelle on Spin City, included merely as what might as well have been termed "colored."
The Office's Stanley is neither heavy and jolly (comic relief) nor heavy and tired (earthy wisdom), but heavy and grouchy, plus married to a white woman (noted only glancingly now and then), but then only after a first marriage to a black woman — and he's having an affair (with a black woman). And 30 Rock has several black characters, none of whom could be treated as stereotypes of any kind. Or, to the extent that they could be, the layered irony that the show is based on would make the argument much more complex than ones to be made about anybody on The Jeffersons.
Incidentally, note that this means that evaluating how far blacks have come on television is not only about how many all-black shows there are, as some seem to suppose lately. We could see all-black shows as, to an extent, a bridging step — segregated, as it were — between the old days and the new ones.
Quite simply, the role of blacks on television has changed much more from 2000 to 2010 than it did from 1990 to 2000. It's part of the "browning" of American culture that Leon Wynter memorably described in his underread American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business and the End of White America. If Bull Connor came back from the grave and turned on a television set, what he saw would make him physically sick.
All of which is to say that while Regina King is right to point out the Emmy problem, my friend and fellow contributor to The Root Stanley Crouch was also right on when he once wrote, "One should always keep a hot poker ready for the backside of injustice, but it's important to polish the crown when you've damned well earned it."
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.