It’s been a banner year for lambasting the deplorable state of race and television. Lately it seems you can pick a fight just about anywhere on the dial. Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes recently got into a Twitter dust-up by calling out the lily-white casting of ABC’s Bunheads. That was a minor skirmish compared to the scorched-earth campaign of criticism waged over Lena Dunham’s Girls this past spring. Mad Men is too white. Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns is too black. Then there are your reality-TV disasters: VH1’s Basketball Wives isn’t doing the modern black woman any favors, and we’ve got lawyers suing ABC over The Bachelor because it casts only white contestants, a lawsuit that must represent a new low for civil rights litigation in America.
Friday Night Lights and The Wire both offered intelligent, thoughtful portraits of race. For laughs, we’ve still got the smart and subtle humor of NBC’s Community, FX’s Louie, and Comedy Central’s Key & Peele. But in what is supposedly a new age of groundbreaking, “novelistic” television drama, one of the most dramatic threads of America’s cultural history is strangely absent. We did Mad Men, the well-lit, glossy “before” picture of white America, taken just as the civil rights movement was about to upend Madison Avenue’s cushy status quo. And we’ve done The Wire, the gritty “after” shot of urban America in the wake of white flight and the drug war. But we skipped the middle chapter. We haven’t done the part about how America stopped being Mad Men and turned into The Wire. That would be the story of the failure of racial integration in the 1970s.
The reason this chapter is missing—both from television and from our collective pop-culture narrative in general—is because it’s ugly. Most of America’s history with race is ugly, but it’s ugly in a way that’s tailor-made for Hollywood’s preferred mode of storytelling: good guys and bad guys. Protagonist and antagonist. Conflict and resolution. The North fought the South and Lincoln freed the slaves—The End. The noble Negro children of Birmingham stood up to Bull Connor, Martin Luther King went to the mountaintop, and white people learned a lesson—The End. Is this a reductive way to look at history? Yes. But it can be done; the narrative building blocks are there. The Civil War and the civil rights movement are both more complex than we typically portray them, but both were fundamentally matters of right vs. wrong, and anything that’s a matter of right vs. wrong can generally be reduced to good guys and bad guys.
Then we come to the story of integration in the 1970s. Where desegregation was a matter of right vs. wrong, integration was a matter of who gets what. Once the walls of Jim Crow came down, blacks had won access to society’s resources. But what did that mean, exactly? How much were they owed as compensation for America’s crimes? How much were white people willing to share? How much could white people be compelled to share? In a world of economic scarcity, these were messy, divisive questions; nobody had put a great deal of forethought into the answers. Meanwhile, inside the black community, integration appealed to those who wanted to share in the opportunities across the color line, but the idea of an open society threatened to undermine the power of black leaders and businessmen whose status was rooted in a separate, blacks-only world. The scramble over who gets what pitted not just black against white, but black against black as well.
When your story is a matter of who gets what, it’s a whole different kind of ugly. The grim saga of real estate integration—which would be your “A” storyline in any TV show about race in the 1970s—offers the clearest example. Republicans are typically cast as the bad guys in this narrative because, well, that’s how they cast themselves. They decided to be the zealots opposed to any and all forms of housing integration. In their bizarro world, that made them the good guys: They were the noble defenders of private property rights against “big government” encroachment (i.e, the extension of private property rights to blacks). In this role, when Lyndon Johnson was trying to pass the 1968 Fair Housing Act in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Republicans attached a series of amendments to the bill that rendered it impotent, incapable of forcing the issue of open housing on white neighborhoods.
And the Democrats let them. Got right on board with it. Voted it through, and declared the Fair Housing Act a triumph. Because it was more important for liberals to have an expedient, symbolic victory than to pass a bill that actually protected black America’s property rights. Subsequently, many of the public housing programs that Democrats did pass amounted to social engineering blunders of such astounding incompetence that the net result was to segregate the American cityscape even further and drive black neighborhoods deeper into poverty. Despite this spotty track record, white liberals have been on a sanctimonious victory lap ever since, beating their chests as the Righteous Friend of the Negro and raking in the lion’s share of the black vote every November when, really, the best you can say about them is that they’re not as horrible as the Republicans. Which isn’t a very high bar to clear. Can you find the good guys and the bad guys in that story? I can’t.
Then we come to the other side of the coin. The government’s failure to create real fair-housing laws gave free rein to the practice of blockbusting. Blockbusters were predatory real-estate speculators. They exploited fears of a black takeover, harassing white homeowners, scaring them out to the suburbs, and picking up their houses on the cheap—only to then turn around and sell those houses to black homeowners at a scandalous markup, leaving them stranded with underwater mortgages in declining neighborhoods. White flight didn’t just “happen”; it was well-orchestrated.
In the blockbusting storyline, you’ll find a lot of bad guys. Thing is, not all of them were white. White realtors and black realtors often worked in collusion, the white realtor targeting and harassing white residents, the black realtor lining up the prospective black tenants who’d be used to flood the neighborhood. Some black realtors even went door-to-door in white neighborhoods themselves, inquiring about properties for sale. They knew full well that the color of their skin would incite a panic in white residents, producing a slate of properties they could pick up on the cheap. And because black homebuyers were being denied fair mortgage credit at banks, black-owned banks and mortgage brokers enjoyed a captive, inflated market; their clients often had nowhere else to go.
Meanwhile, from city hall to Capitol Hill, black politicians lobbied for housing policies that kept low-income blacks marooned in urban housing to create solid voting blocks; integration threatened the power base that guaranteed electoral victory for urban political machines. On the 5 o’clock news, black politicians blamed the black man’s ills on the white man, and white Republicans wagged their finger at all the black welfare queens. Yet behind the scenes, both groups engaged in a tacit, unholy alliance to carve up city and suburb to their mutual advantage, no matter the ill effects for the average family looking for decent housing and schools.