Surviving Survivor: The “Reality” of Race

September 12, 2006

Positioned as a televised "social experiment", the new season of Survivor will be pitting ethnic tribes against each other: Whites against African Americans against Hispanics against Asian Americans. From the initial reaction by the public and the news media, there is no escaping the reality that race is a complex and emotional issue in America -- one we are still reluctant to confront and address.

The media has focused on the reaction to teams segregated by race competing against one another for a $1M prize. Not only does there appear to be little support for the idea, many have expressed complete disdain for what appears to be one network's ratings hungry exploitation of one of this country's most sensitive subjects. It can be argued, however, that the attention to this so called "reality" show is a distraction. It ignores a larger and more important reality; when we assess minority representation, not just on television, but in every dimension of the entertainment industry, we are now being voted off the island we have struggled to inhabit.

You cannot protest the ideas and shows on television concerning race and popular American culture without protesting the woeful lack of African American and minority creative executives and showrunners. Today, nearly one-third of the viewing audience is diverse. If, for any reason, minority viewers were to turn their televisions off, ratings would drop considerably. So, one could argue that one-third of all those on television and working behind-the-scenes in Hollywood should be minorities. Of course, that's not the case.

After the 2006 television upfronts were announced, the NAACP issued a press release expressing the concern that, "For the first time in recent history, there is not a comedy scheduled for the upcoming season with an African American lead character on the big four networks." What's the big deal? It's only comedy some might say. The Hollywood tradition is that, for the most part, African American writers, producers and directors work on African American shows. The reality is that when these shows are cancelled hundreds, if not thousands, of African Americans and minorities who have made their careers working in television comedy lose their jobs too. Now, if the writers, actors, directors and crafts persons on these cancelled shows were considered equally for other industry jobs and opportunities, we would have no issue. Regrettably, this is not the way it works in Hollywood. This is an issue that continues to adversely affect people's lives but has received little media attention.

An examination of American news media reveals that members of ethnic minorities are inadequately represented in news media, and that portrayal of minorities in news coverage is often stereotypical and biased. For example, if you turn on the Sunday morning interview news shows, you would think that African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans have no political leaders or critical thinkers.

If we are truly concerned about the issue of segregating the races, here's a news story worth public debate. In a pair of upcoming cases that could reignite disputes over race and public education, the Supreme Court will decide what role race will play in determining equal access to quality education. The landmark Brown vs Board of Education decision is under attack. That is an issue that deserves our attention.

President Bush signed into law the reauthorization and restoration of the Voting Rights Act on July 27th. It is already being challenged in his home state of Texas. This case will probably find its way to the Supreme Court. That is yet another race issue that warrants public awareness and concern.

The NAACP is a civil rights organization and, as such, we defend the First Amendment and everyone's right to free speech. When required, we directly confront the creation of defamatory negative stereotypes. We will also continue to be vigilant regarding the issue of employment in the entertainment industry.

So, concerning the new season of Survivor, whether we like the concept or not -- and, for the record we do not -- it is premature to judge the show purely on conjecture. We will judge the show on what we see and we will monitor the public response.

We know that racism is taught. Media, particularly television, has proven to be a powerful teacher. The NAACP recognizes that when it comes to forming ideas and establishing norms, nothing affects us more than the images and concepts delivered into our lives on a daily basis by television and film. Accordingly, there is ample cause for concern about what does or does not happen on television. We will soon find out what lessons Survivor teaches. As we have for forty years, we will continue to advocate for the inclusion of minorities in every aspect of the media and entertainment industry.

Contact: Communications (410) 580-5125

< View All Press Releases