A false sense of integration; Illusion: Television shows American society to be more diverse than it is. That could end up slowing real racial progress.


"THERE'LL BE black faces, Asian faces, Latin faces, men, women all over the place," the producer of a new network television show giddily proclaimed this summer as he, like other white Hollywood executives, scrambled to cast minority actors after the NAACP criticized them for scheduling a lily-white lineup of fall TV shows.

If only the rest of society could be integrated so easily. Indeed, the recent brouhaha over the fall TV lineup obscures a little known fact about television and race: When it comes to blacks, television is one of the most integrated parts of American life.

That doesn't mean every show reflects racial diversity -- too many don't, and many, such as the top rated situation-comedies "Friends" and "Frasier," remain completely white. But when the total television viewing experience is taken together -- prime-time, soaps, talk shows, children's shows, news, sports, movies and advertising -- our society as seen on television looks far more integrated than it is.

That says a great deal about how deeply separated we are. For most black and white Americans, the daily racial reality is that we don't live together, learn together, play together, pray together, or relax together. Even when we work together, we go separate ways at lunch and after work.

About a third of all black Americans live in neighborhoods 90 percent or more black, and most other blacks live in areas disproportionately or predominantly black. A Hispanic or Asian-American with a third-grade education is more likely to live in an integrated neighborhood than a black with a Ph.D. Sadly, the integration dream the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.worked so hard to achieve -- an integration of people that goes far beyond the desegregation of opportunity and law -- remains precisely that, a dream.

But on television, the picture is different. Blacks in real life may not visit whites in their homes, but blacks on screen are regular guests in white living rooms. Welcome to the land of virtual integration. It could be the pop star Brandy playing Cinderella; Bill Cosby or Della Reese starring in a show; Cuba Gooding or Chris Rock playing host on "Saturday Night Live"; Denzel Washington or Whoopi Goldberg doing a celebrity interview; Michael Jordan or James Earl Jones pitching a product; Ed Bradley or Gwen Ifill reporting the news, or any combination of black newscasters, athletes, entertainers, actors and anonymous extras who populate the airwaves hour after hour, day after day.

There are blacks on the morning shows doing the news and weather, blacks reporting stories for the news magazine shows, blacks playing and announcing sports, blacks interviewing and being interviewed, blacks on the police shows investigating homicides, and blacks offering up opinions on the political talk-show circuit.

In TV dramas like "ER" and "The Practice," black surgeons treat white patients and black lawyers represent white clients in far greater proportion than they do in real life.

Commercials are no different, conjuring up the image of integrated suburbs where black and white kids play basketball together, black and white women reminisce about growing up together, and black and white pals hunker down for a Sunday of watching football together.

Rarely does a typical viewer go more than a few minutes without seeing a black face on the screen. Although the number fluctuates each year, as many as 17 percent of all characters in prime-time entertainment this decade have been played by blacks. According to a 1995 study by the Screen Actors Guild, blacks constitute more than 12 percent of on-camera actors and more than 17 percent of all extras in television ads.

On the news, the number of black TV journalists is roughly proportionate to the overall black population in America, about 13 percent. Sports broadcasts -- from the players to the announcers -- are fully integrated. Even viewers of all-white shows like "Friends" will see blacks punctuate the half-hour slot via ads, promos, and news briefs, which consume about 25 percent of all television time.

To be sure, the integration of television is far from perfect. There are too few black leads, too many segregated sitcoms, too few story lines around black families, and as the NAACP cogently points out, too few black programming executives with the power to green-light ideas and create integrated shows. Moreover, blacks may be well represented in ads, but unless a celebrity is featured,blacks are less likely than whites to be the focus of the ad and more likely to be part of a group, a sequence, or the background cast.

Color-blind society

Compared with the rest of America, however, the television screen looks like a veritable color-blind society. And that should be good news for television. For if it can help shatter stereotypes, fortify the interracial comfort zone, and multiply the number of black role models for everyone in America, television can accomplish an important goal that most other institutions in society have not been willing or able to accomplish.

The NAACP is right to keep pushing this cause. But virtual integration may also lead us to a classic case of unintended consequences: Because we too often mistake what's on the screen for what's in our lives, television's virtually integrated world may lull white Americans into a false sense of self-congratulation about race and, ironically, retard progress toward real integration.

In the typical American household the television is on an average of seven hours a day. The televised image effectively wallpapers our lives. Research has shown that viewers often believe television reality to be as authentic as their actual reality, if not more so.

"Friends" is the quintessential name for a television show, not only because of the fictional friendship among the characters but because it's a metaphor for the virtual relationship we as viewers have with these and so many others on TV.

When it comes to race, television has made black people a part of white people's lives, virtually so. It offers whites the sensation of having meaningful, repeated contact with blacks without actually having it. For whites generally unaccustomed to interacting with blacks, who walk out their front doors and see few black faces in the neighborhood, who go to all white churches and social events, the mere presence of black images in their homes blurs the line between what is imagined and what is real about race in America.

If seeing is believing, if America appears integrated even if it isn't, then it's no surprise whites overwhelmingly tell pollsters that our major racial problems are behind us, that discrimination no longer unduly hobbles blacks, and that blacks have only themselves to blame for their problems.

Whites who see an integrated world on television will see their all-white neighborhoods or social clubs as exceptions, so to them it's not a big deal. Whites who flee real integrated neighborhoods but enjoy virtually integrated neighborhoods in their living rooms see no contradiction between the two and continue to view themselves as tolerant, fair-minded and color-blind. Whites living in a virtual world where they get to know black lawyers, doctors, newscasters and celebrities not surprisingly conclude that blacks who raise racial issues are whining and complaining, that it is "they" who push "us" away.

Sustaining an illusion

Television, in short, creates and sustains the illusion among whites that integration in America is proceeding and race relations are not as bad as blacks claim them to be. Certainly it would be ironic that television -- one of the few visible institutions in society where blacks have advanced so far -- may also provide whites with an excuse not to move much beyond the status quo or to examine deeply held prejudices and stereotypes that continue to hobble relations between the races.

Or as the inimitable Edith Bunker said about blacks in one episode of "All in the Family": "You sure gotta hand it to 'em. I mean, two years ago they was nothing but servants and janitors. Nowadays they're teachers and doctors and lawyers. They've come a long way on TV."

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication at American University, co-author of the book "By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race" (Dutton, 1999) and contributing editor of the new Internet magazine, TomPaine.com.

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