Are white people the architects responsible for putting this system in place? Of course. Most of the blame lies there, but the point is: Once the system is up and running, everybody’s hands get dirty. Everyone accommodates out of self-interest, and the whole thing just grinds on. That’s why the history of integration doesn’t fit into neat, little packages. If we put it on television, the moral of the story would not be that white people did horrible stuff to black people and so white people need to learn a lesson. That’s your “white guilt” storyline. It’s an important arc for the series, but it’s not the whole show.
The real moral of the story is that when you create a corrupt system, there just aren’t a whole lot of good moral choices to be made, and it’s very difficult to be the person who makes them. The story of racial integration isn’t good guys and bad guys, but it is full of good and decent, if imperfect, people, white and black, mostly just trying to take care of their families in a world of limited choices. Most people are not the architects of the problem; they’re trying to make a life inside the problem, and in the simple act of looking for a good school they’re helping to perpetuate the system that keeps the country divided. Which is why it’s so necessary to tell this story, but if we’re really, really honest about what happened in the wake of Jim Crow’s demise, white conservatives, white liberals, urban political machines, black businessmen—nobody comes out clean, and a lot of the assumptions underpinning today’s racial politics get challenged. Which may be why we haven’t wanted to look too closely.
Maybe I’m oversimplifying. But then oversimplification seems like it’s been the point. Look at the pop culture references to race that date from the integration era. There’s All in the Family, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. There’s the blaxploitation classics like Shaft and Uptown Saturday Night. It’s comic, pulpy fare, for the most part. What’s the lasting cultural landmark on race from the 1970s? That would be Roots. A classic, and an important one, but, again, one that takes refuge in the past, in the moral certainty of right vs. wrong, averting our gaze from the messy reality of who gets what in the present.
Until very recently, the storytelling tools of television weren’t that sophisticated. Short of something like Roots, the complex issue of race had to be shoehorned into Very Special Episodes of Charles in Charge. But our new, post-Sopranos era of series TV has evolved into the perfect medium to tell the story of race. Good television is now capable of going beyond good guys and bad guys. We can do moral ambiguity on a grand narrative scale now. And viewers seem to love it.
I see a television show in my head. Set in an integrating working- and middle-class neighborhood of a Great American City. Black and white neighbors trying, and failing, to coexist. We follow its residents to school, to church, to the office, to city hall. We follow the white establishment power brokers and a newly elected black mayor as they cynically carve up the cityscape to their mutual benefit. We follow the black company man who’s fighting his way into middle management, fighting the conservative obstructionism of the old boys’ network on one side while enduring the gooey condescension of white liberals on the other. We go with the black kids on the bus out to the hostile, lily-white nether regions of suburbia. We follow the white ladies in the PTA and their husbands at the city planning meetings, wrestling with white guilt but always acting out of panicky self-interest. We follow the interracial newlyweds, wondering how to raise their mixed-race kids in the midst of all of the above.
Season after gripping season, we watch what happens as school busing and affirmative action and all these other programs try to force the country together, only to tear it apart. It’s got everything: the sprawling, interlocking narrative of The Wire plus the production values and period detail of Mad Men, all set in the Superfly 1970s. It’s a rising tide of Black-is-Beautiful, Afro-American consciousness crashing headlong into the poor fashion choices and stony self-entitlement of a silent suburban majority. Think of the costume design. Think of the soundtrack.
This could be great television. I actually ran this idea past a Hollywood agent a few months ago. In typical agent fashion, he told me “No” five different ways in less than a minute. Not because it wasn’t a good idea, he said, but because only one network in the country would even consider making it: HBO. And if HBO turns you down, you’ve got nowhere else to go. But then why wouldn’t HBO say yes? They’ve already got great working relationships with David Simon, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese. Surely the creators of The Wire, Do The Right Thing, and Mean Streets would be tempted by such a great canvas on which to tell the story of race and urban decay in America. The entire casts of Oz, The Wire, and The Sopranos already on speed dial? All the pieces are in place. What better way to comment on the segregated nature of television than with a television show that tells the story of why we failed to integrate?
It’s a show that’s practically begging to be made. People would watch it, and it would be good for America. Or we could just sue ABC to get more black ladies on The Bachelor. I’m sure that would work, too.