The Ugly, Messy History of Integration in America Would Make a Great TV Series

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July 18 2012 6:20 AM

Dear HBO,

There is a television series you need to make. It will be dramatic. And important. And you can rehire all the actors from The Wire.

The Jeffersons.
The Jeffersons dealt with integration in a comic way, but television has evolved to allow for more complex narratives.

Still from The Jeffersons © ELP Communications. All rights reserved.

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.

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.

Tanner Colby is the author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. Visit him at his website or follow him on Twitter.