The representation of race in media has always been a major issue from time immemorial. There have always been concerns on various issues; two of the issues that usually came up were underrepresentation and misrepresentation. These two were of major even before the introduction of television. Many books and video dramas where black and other minority characters were used saw them being depicted in a light that was not entirely true. The depiction ended up creating certain stereotypes; some of these stereotypes still exist today.
The introduction of television in the 1950s further brought concerns about race to the forefront. The position that television occupies in America’s civilization is one that can only be considered integral. Television wasn’t just theatre for entertainment at home; it was an information source, sports event arena, debate forum, an audiovisual billboard for advertisements, and a creator and reflector of popular culture. After its introduction, it soon established itself as the dominant media, especially after World War II. People of colour, most especially the black population of America, had depended on the television for almost all their information during this crucial time in the modern civil rights movement.
Misrepresentation and underrepresentation were two problems that continued with the introduction of television. The 1950s and 60s were periods when black people played subservient roles such as mammies, handymen, or maids in most films and television. Following the racial disturbances and civil in most American cities around that time, the Kerner Commission, officially known as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, was formed in 1967. The purpose of the Commission was to examine the cause of the unrest and its work. It investigated the representation of people of colour in the media. The Commission discovered that the depiction of people of colour in the early media was stereotypical and infrequent. Thus, the Commission criticized the predominantly white America for creating, condoning, and maintaining social conditions that led to the unrest. It discovered that the media with television as its most dominant aspect was part of the institutions causing the division between White and Black Americans due to the absence of diversity within it.
In response to this discovery, the Commission recommended that television should create programming that integrates people of colour (black people in particular) into all parts of its televised presentation. It stated that there is a need for more blank people to appear in comedy and drama series apart from news-related programming where they already appear often. By the mid and late 60s, there was more depiction of people of colour on Prime Time television. They were mostly used as social symbols. For instance, the mid-1960s saw Black Americans in guests spots on the television programs of broadcast networks. They also starred in the new series of that time, such as Julia, Room 222, and I Spy. The inclusion of people of colour in those programs and films was considered by many as the signs of evident social progress, which represents the new free and integrated United States of America.
The years after that had seen some changes in the politics of television art. Black organizations, politicians, and social leaders continue to complain about the influential role of television in the American culture as they constantly point out programs that, in their opinion, are unfavourable or beneficial to Black People. Apart from the Kerner Commission, other organizations had significant impacts on the proper representation of Black people and other people of colour in television and other media. The National Council of La Raza and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are just a few of the organizations that have expressed their concerns on the issue of the underrepresentation of black people and other people of colour on television. The NAACP continued to protest this problem of Black people’s television treatment from the early 50s right into the 21st century. Through coalitions like the NAACP, National Asian American Telecommunications Associations, National Council of La Raza, network programming boycotts by people of colour, and public discussions where issues on diversity are discussed, the big four networks ABC, FOX, NBC, and CBS have all had to pledge to increased diversity in their programs.
By the late 1980s, these organizations’ efforts have started yielding positive results with network programs that were exclusively black-oriented, such as Living Single, Family Matters, and The Cosby Show. By the turn of the century, black people’s representation on television had reached the same percentage as their population in the United States. However, the increase in the number of characters of colour has not been a long-term one due to the fact that the first decade of the 21st century saw a great decline in the programs on broadcast television, especially those with a cast of more people of colour. This was due to the emergence of cable niche markets, which lessened the pressure that was the major broadcast network to offer diverse programming. Since there were now outlets that chunks directly serve minority audiences even more effectively.
Representation of Black Women
The depiction of black women on television in its early years was nothing short of stereotypical views of that time. Black women were depicted in roles of maids and mammies, but this depiction gradually changed in the 21st century, with more black women getting to the helm of affairs. Women such as Oprah Winfrey, Debra Lee, and Catherine Hughes, coupled with the black women who were writers, showrunners, directors, etc. The stereotypical representation of black women in the 1970s and 80s situational comedies have shifted to a more confident image that contrasts with past stereotypes.
The representation of race has come a long way since the 1950s. While issues of misrepresentations and stereotypical representations still exist, underrepresentation, especially among black Americans, can be said to be a thing of the past. However, other minorities, such as Latinos, can still be said to be underrepresented on television.