Skip to main content /transcript




NAACP Speaks on Minorities on Television

Aired August 15, 2001 - 13:37   ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And now live to Hollywood. Kweisi Mfume, the head of the NAACP, is delivering his message to Hollywood. We'll hear from him on what the NAACP thinks about minorities on television.

KWEISI MFUME, NAACP PRESIDENT: I want to point out, if I might, that it's important for us not just to give out a report, but to do a couple of things. And I will try to do those in my remarks.

The first is is to set the context out of which we find ourselves with respect to this initiative now that, for our association, has consumed two years of our time and our energy.

The second thing is to give some sort of historical context, with respect to the NAACP, just to underscore the fact that this was not a sort of a fly-by, drive-by issue for the Association, so that you might be able to better understand and hopefully also appreciate our history with respect to the larger television and film industry that goes back many years.

The third thing I'd like to do is to draw the conclusions that we have gleaned from our work, so that you might understand where we are as we conclude what these facts represent.

And then the fourth thing is to talk about action options, all of which will be explored by this association, and I'll wait and say more at that particular time about those action options.

I want to announce that seated here with me on the podium is Debra Liu (ph). Ms. Liu is an attorney. She works with the NAACP, works for the NAACP, and has worked very, very hard in this area since we began this issue in July of 1999. She worked also on this report, deserves a great deal of credit, will come to you immediately after I finish to talk about some of the specifics contained therein. And then we'll open this up and try to respond to any questions or comments that you may have as you report both sides of this issue.

The NAACP believes that it is both appropriate and necessary to point out that the television is without a doubt the most powerful medium ever known to mankind, and that when it comes to forming ideas, developing stereotypes, establishing norms and shaping our thinking, nothing affects us more than the images and the concepts delivered into our lives on a daily basis by television. Viewing habits by every segment of the American public suggest that television is becoming more influential and more dominant in our lives, not less. Thus, there is amble concern on our part to believe that is cause for concern about what does and does not happen on television when there are very little opportunities for diversity within the decision-making process.

While those with limited insight on this subject repeatedly try to seek and criticize any effort to deal with this problem in this medium as unnecessary and out of touch, the fact of the matter is that television continues to be a very meaningful part of the struggle in the lives of a lot of people, just in terms of determining where they are and how we portray them. And so we reject that sort of nonsense out of hand because we recognize if real and meaningful change takes place here, it will take place other places. And so rather than to look away as if helpless, the NAACP chooses to look forward in hopes of changing the medium that so oftentimes changes us as a nation.

With all of the attended pathologies that are affecting communities and people across our nation, one might argue that there are more important and urgent needs and more important battles to fight. And although that may clearly be the case, few, if any issues, will definite us more in the context of who we are, what we think and how we respond as will television. The shapers of images, the writers of thoughts and the givers of opportunity were never meant to be a handful or a few. Whenever that occurs, we suffer as a society from a very narrow and myopic construct of the world, and an even more blurred vision of right and wrong.

And so it is the NAACP that continues to believe and to continue to push for an ongoing critical analysis of all four major television networks. We believe it is appropriate and necessary. The annual report that we will be offering, we think, is a first step in a rather long journey to create equal opportunity in the corporate, executive, production and talent ranks of network television.

If I might, from a historical perspective perspective, let me say a couple of quick things. For us as an association, our involvement has been long and deep. The NAACP has been involved in the continuing struggle for greater participation, particularly of African-Americans, in the entertainment industry and the portrayal of black people on the screens since 1915, when we first took to the streets in New York to protest the launching of "Birth of a Nation" by D.W. Griffith. Shortly after, the NAACP's crusade against "Birth of a Nation," a group of independent black filmmakers appeared on the scene, almost as a response to the inaccurate characterizations that continued to be put forth by Hollywood.

Emmett J. Scott, George and Noble Johnson, and the legendary Oscar Micheaux, all defined and defied the stereotypes, and offered movies with black actors, in stark contrast to the images that were otherwise available. And so the films that were produced by pioneers like that and others really spoke to the endurance and the ambition and the desire to be equal with black people in this industry.

In 1942 an agreement was struck with Walter White, then the executive secretary of the NAACP, and Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate, with major film studios, calling for the establishment of an ad hoc committee of black actors and private citizens and liberal whites to monitor the images of the portrayal of African-Americans on the screen. However, images of black people that were created by Hollywood at that time changed very little at all. By the end of that decade, television would be invented, and it would be introduced as this novel and unique sort of electronic gadgetry to the American public. Its early technology, its early cost made it somewhat prohibitive to families, but its popularity began to climb and it began a steady incline that was never to be eroded.

With television, as was the case with motion pictures, the questions of characterizations and opportunities for qualified African-American men and women continued to be a problem. At our national convention in 1951, the NAACP passed a resolution critical of the new TV series "Amos and Andy," and other programs stressing negative stereotypes. And according to that resolution, shows like "Amos and Andy" -- quote -- "depicted black people in a stereotypical and derogatory manner, and the practice of manufacturers, distributors and retailers, persons or firms promoting that show or "The Beulah Show," or others like that, were to be condemned.

We sought an injunction in federal court, as some of you know, back in those early days, to prevent CBS from televising that show. And all the -- the series was produced for two seasons, '51 through '53, it continued in syndication until 1966, and it was then that we were able to get, through litigation, CBS to agree to withdraw that particular show.

Although our campaign to eliminate racial bias in the entertainment industry received in those early years support from the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild, Craft Unions and Hollywood continued to, in many respects, openly and systemically exclude blacks as electricians, cameraman, carpenters, prop persons and other craft positions. And then we fast forward to 1967. The Beverly Hills Hollywood branch of the NAACP, concerned about the portrayal of the black experience in America, established what later became known as the Annual Image Awards, and we're now in our 33rd or so year for that, to honor outstanding African-American actors, actresses, writers, producers, directors and others in the field who were worthy enough and willing enough and daring enough, despite the odds, to try to find a way to put forward positive images.

We thought, quite frankly, during that decade of the '60s, with the release of what was known as "I Spy" with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, that in that first real integrated drama, that TV was on a course, an unalterable course, that would in fact create situations where we would display and create for people a sense of America that really looked like America. And things got kind of skewed before the '60s was over, and following the death of Dr. King and through the '70s, very little change took place. And "I Spy" was to be left out there, almost as a dinosaur of its time, not to be replicated by additional dramas that were integrated, but to be left alone.

And by 1980, executive director Ben Hooks of the NAACP appointed a committee to look into -- quote -- "the status of blacks in Hollywood." And after a series of meetings with studio heads and network people, fair share agreements were assigned in September of 1982 with Walt Disney Productions and MGM and United Artists, and those commitments sought to expand opportunities for African- Americans, and employment business board representation and production years. And yet, almost 10 years went by until the next real analysis by us revealed that in spite of those agreements, very little again had happened.

In fact, 10 years later at our annual convention, we held a forum entitled "African-Americans in Entertainment" that explored charges of racism in the industry, and announced the formation of a task force to determine the status of African-Americans in motion pictures and in television.

Finally, let me just, as we wrap this background up, say to you that our efforts to continue this long and unwavering initiative against discrimination in the larger entertainment industry that took shape almost a century ago, is not something that we are prepared to drop at this time. In fact, we have and are intensifying our push for opportunities, behind and in front of the camera, for qualified men and women of color. The NAACP's current initiative has focused primarily, as most of you know who have covered this, on the greater inclusion of racial minorities in television network industry. We expect for that to continue and to expand as we move and devote a great deal of our time and energy at some point down the road, with respect to the motion picture industry.

Now, in July of 1999 at conclusion of that decade, where we, again, witness very little change, at our annual convention in New York, I publicly criticized the announcement of 26 new network shows scheduled for air in the 1999/2000 season by referring to the fact that not a single actor was featured in any starring or lead role in those shows as a virtual whitewash of TV.

A month later, the NAACP set out to investigate and to try as best we could, again, to alleviate the systemic discrimination against the exclusion of racial minorities in television. We met with CEOs, we met with presidents of the major networks throughout August to express our outrage and concern in 1999. What we discovered was interesting. We discovered a less-than-purposeful and deliberate denial of opportunity to people of color by network management, but rather, the effect of their narrow thinking and shallow approach was no less insidious or devastating to the careers of hundreds of talented men and women of color.

In September of that year, we led a coalition of national civil rights organizations in solidarity, to protest the systemic exclusion of people of color from the television network industry. The coalition was comprised, as all of you know, of members from the Asian-American, Hispanic and Native American communities. It was chaired that year by myself.

A month after that, in November of 1999, here in Los Angeles, we convened the first NAACP television diversity hearings, public hearings in which prominent actors, writers, producers , stunt performers, activists, union officials and guild representatives testified before our hearing panel, which consisted of myself and other NAACP officials and our coalition partners.

Witnesses described also all sorts of unspoken, exclusionary practices and procedures. It's a kind of silence, a de facto discrimination that had lingering effects and had been pervasive. And in January of that year, a few months later, we reached, the NAACP, an historic agreement with CBS, which focused on the implementation of initiatives across the board in all areas of network operations.

And in the ensuing weeks, three other networks followed suit, each signing similar agreements with our association and with our multicultural coalition partners, then represented by former Congressman Esteban Torres of the Hispanic Media Council; Sonny Skyhawk representing the larger Native American community with Americans in Film and Television; and former Congressman Norm Mineta for the Asian-American community.

And in the months that followed, we had a series of meetings, tons of meetings with Hollywood studios, with the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, AFTRA, with the Nielsen Media Research people, with William Morris Agency, and with motion picture producers.

This report that we are about to offer encompasses an 18-month compilation of facts and findings in our investigation of what the networks have or have not done to deal with meaningful diversity and the extension of opportunity to qualified men and women in this industry. Regrettably, the result of the current review suggests that the words of our association in our 1990 convention still ring true.

We said in that year -- quote -- "It is inconceivable that anyone could deny the existence of racism in an industry that, after 50 years in business, cannot point to one black, Latino, or Asian-American who can green-light a film, hire or fire a director or producer or sign a development deal."

And so, in conclusion, let me just offer these things. And then I will yield to Ms. Liu. For African-Americans, for Latinos, for Asian-American and Native Americans, progress on diversity by television networks over the last year has been relative, to say the least.

As the nation's viewing population is estimated to rapidly grow more and multiracial, network programmers are increasingly becoming aware that featuring African-Americans or Latinos or Asians or Native Americans is good business. However, today, by any measurable standard, all of these groups and races of people are still underrepresented in almost every aspect of the television and film industry.

They, for the most part, have been denied access to positions of power here in Hollywood. And although there appears to be some small gains in on-air roles -- and some of you saw the "USA Today" piece yesterday -- there is practically no representation of people of color in the top echelon of production, which really is the nucleus of this industry. And with respect to the "USA" report, also, let me just say this. Sometimes it's important to dissect and define. And so the fact that they are reporting a 7 percent increase in people of color in on-air positions ought to cause us to dissect and define the report and to ask the question: How many of those are recurring roles? How many of those are speaking roles? How many of those are simply background positions?

It's interesting sometimes the way networks will count and suggest that there is progress. We suggest that progress is relative and that it will be driven basically by dollars and cents. And so it's still unknown whether there is any identifiable African-American who has the authority to green-light a new series or to make final decisions relative to creative activities. And whether the paucity of minority executives at the networks, studios and other entities is because of nepotism or cronyism, or, as some claim, racial discrimination, the fact of the matter is, the results still ring true.

The snail's-pace reaction by some of the networks 18 months after reaching a set of preliminary agreements with our association and others has been discouraging. The lack of progress is most evident in the news operation, in the public affairs operation, in the sports departments of these networks. In entertainment programming, the paucity of writers, show-runners and casting directors changed very little over the last year or so.

Boards at the networks and their parent companies remain virtually all white -- the exceptions, of course, being CBS; NBC, to some extent, when you look at the board of GE; and Fox, which recently added one racial minority to their board.

Now, we applaud the efforts of the vice presidents of diversity at each one of these networks. However, they must be given greater latitude over the decision-making process if real change is to really occur. The constant second-guessing of those VPs of diversity, the second-guessing of their opinions opens the door for a business-as- usual approach at the highest levels of management.

And so, in the aggregate, those facts that have been stated and others leave the NAACP with very little hope that all of the networks understand or are willing to work on the issues of diversity of opportunity in the executive production and talent rights of network television as we know it.

The situation is even more pronounced when you talk about the correlation.

ALLEN: The NAACP chastising Hollywood and the entertainment industry and the big four networks for its lack of diversity, as the NAACP sees it.

There has been a slight gain of minorities on television shows and in the movies, but not enough, according to Kweisi Mfume there, delivering a stern -- stern thoughts and words on that score to Hollywood. We're going to talk now with Tavis Smiley, CNN contributor who is hosting "TALKBACK LIVE" this week.

And today, Tavis, you're talking about this very topic. Although there are more African-American characters on television this fall, the big message from Kweisi Mfume is, it's just too little to late. Still, they've been fighting this for decades, as he pointed out.

TAVIS SMILEY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I should start by saying that one of our scheduled guests, although with Cornel West, the Harvard professor, and Anne-Marie Johnson, a representative of the Screen Actors Guild, we are expected to be joined by Mr. Mfume himself at 3:00 Eastern today on "TALKBACK LIVE."

Having said that, we were sitting here, somewhat kind of rolled our eyes, like: When is he going to get to the point? Is he going to make -- is he going to call for a boycott? Is he not?

We reported, of course, earlier on this program today, on this network earlier today that he would not, in fact. He walked up to the door, criticizing the networks, but, apparently, not in fact call for a boycott of a particular network. And in fact -- relief -- he did not in fact call a boycott -- relief by some of those in Hollywood that he hasn't taken that step as yet.

As the press conference goes on, of course, we will hear the details of the report. But I started to say a moment ago, it took him a while to get to the assessment of the industry in part because he felt it necessary to really lay out this 100-year history. This is an ongoing problem. It's not getting better, at least not fast enough. And there are always those who are going to criticize the NAACP and say: Isn't there something better for them to do?

So he had to set the context before he could get to the content of what this struggle is all about. So I understand why he took the long way home, so to speak, to get to that point. He -- I noted, though, he still called what's happening in this industry the systemic discrimination, that despite the SAG report that came out the other day suggesting that progress had been made.

But he still feels like there is a paucity, clearly. There are too little -- the numbers too small of African-Americans in front of the camera and behind the camera. This does, though, raise, in many ways, a lot more questions than it answers.

As I said not too long ago on this program, what is Hollywood going to think now? What are they going to do now? Is there a sigh of relief going to be heard from Hollywood? "We survived the bullet. There's no boycott being called today."

Does that then mean they are going to return to business as usual? What are black folk going to think about this? Is this another effort by the NAACP that will be seen as the "boy who cried wolf"? We know the issues, say black America. We know the problems. You gave us a 100-year diatribe of what this problem really is. What are you going to do about it? Where's the beef? Where's the boycott? I don't know how Hollywood or black America, quite frankly, is going to interpret it. And I hope to get into some of those issues on "TALKBACK LIVE" today.

ALLEN: Is the pressure on or is the pressure off following this today?

SMILEY: Precisely.

ALLEN: And you will talk about that on "TALKBACK." And we'll be watching.

SMILEY: Thank you.

ALLEN: Tavis Smiley, he is the host today. And he will talk more about it.



Back to the top