Chris Rock hosting the 88th Annual Academy Awards, February 28, 2016. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
A month after Jeff Chang’s Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) hit bookstores, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, was announced. In the two years since that book—which looks at the “explosion of cultural expression that moved us forward toward mutual recognition amidst a cascade of regressive policies, laws, and political maneuvers”—the notion that there ever was a “post-racial” moment has come to seem “naive, even desperately so,” Chang writes in his new book, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador, 2016). Through six essays, the author and journalist argues that despite our many celebrations of “diversity,” we’ve “slid back toward segregation”—in the political, policy, and entertainment spheres. Moving from the rise of Donald Trump to the emergence of the Movement for Black Lives, the changing suburbs to the equality-challenged spaces of Hollywood, We Gon’ Be Alright makes the case that, as Chang told the Washington Post earlier this month, “we don’t naturally fall into a situation that is equitable. Equality is something we have to fight for.”
Here, we share Chang’s chapter on race, Hollywood, and the recurring #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.
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When the Academy Awards came around in the second year of #OscarsSoWhite, I decided I would support Spike and Jada’s boycott—my little twenty-first-century version of honoring the picket line, engaging by disengaging. But in this era of converging media, there is no escaping Big Cultural Events. When my friend Kai texted me, I could no longer ignore the damn thing. “Yikes,” she wrote. “Jose sparked a POC fight on Twitter about anti-Blackness.”
Jose was our friend Jose Antonio Vargas, the indefatigable undocumented Pinoy activist who at that moment was one of the main targets of a brilliant and viciously funny Black Twitter hashtag #NotYourMule.
As Chris Rock worked through his opening monologue, Jose had tweeted, “When will @chrisrock bring up Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American actors and opportunity?” Others, it turned out, were wondering the same thing. Ming-Na Wen tweeted, “Chris Rock hasn’t once brought up other minorities who have worse odds at the #Oscars.” Black writer and activist Mikki Kendall replied, “Someone tell me not to do a #NotYourMule tag about the expectation that Black people take all the risk to advance representation in media.”1
Kendall had summoned Zora Neale Hurston— the patron saint of Black Twitter, the respectability-politics-exploding writer-fighter who knew her way around an incisive diss. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s character Nanny declares, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Kendall’s hashtag set the feeds flying—tweets about Black solidarity for POC, POC anti-Black racism, Peter Liang, it was all on the table. In its 2016 nominations, the Academy ignored what might be called the Black Lives renaissance—the broad, urgent work of Black actors, directors, and others who were telling some of the most important stories of our time. It was the second year in a row that April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag mobilized audience fury at the blatant omissions.
In response, Academy head Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first woman of color ever to hold the position, pushed her board to pass a plan “doubling the membership of women and diverse members of the Acad emy by 2020.”2 The actors’ branch alone was 88 percent white. Even the Academy’s language of change was awkward and out of touch, directed largely at convincing its “non-diverse” members. Here was another American institution, led by a Black woman, whose leadership and membership remained unrepresentative of and unresponsive to a constituency that had changed. The story sounded Clinton Sparks familiar.
In fact, it reminded Jose of a 2014 Hollywood Reporter cover essay written by Chris Rock, packaged under the headline IT’S A WHITE INDUSTRY. IT JUST IS. In it, Rock wrote personally and passionately about his efforts to create opportunities for other Black actors and artists in a closed studio system. Jose had been particularly struck by two paragraphs.
“But forget whether Hollywood is black enough,” Rock wrote. “A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough?” He continued:
You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist— not racist like “F— you, nigger” racist, but just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. Th ere’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. . . .
You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now.3
Source: #EmergingUS on Facebook
Jose had been so moved that he and his team produced a powerful video, “I, Too,” for his EmergingUS platform that they debuted the day of the Oscars. It seemed to have been inspired by Coca-Cola’s 2014 Super Bowl ad, “America the Beautiful.” But in his piece there was no cynical ploy to sell sugar water. Instead the video offered beautiful images of Latinos in Los Angeles—a parking lot flagger, a taquería food worker, a seamstress, a deliveryman, an elderly worker on a bus, a young mother and her child—all set to the sound of a man reciting in Spanish Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Yo también canto América.”
Jose later recalled, “When Rock started his monologue, I thought maybe he’d repeat a line or two from his essay.” So he tweeted his question. But as the night and the feeds rolled on, he realized that Kendall and others were likely reading something else into it—a misplaced anger about Rock’s omission, or, worse, an aggrandizing “what about me” ethnic solipsism, an expression of non-Black POC entitlement. As Kendall put it, “Solidarity doesn’t look like Black people taking the risks & every one else reaping the rewards.”4
If Twitter’s brevity does nuance no favors, its velocity can reveal complexity very quickly. When #OscarsSoWhite gave way to #NotYourMule, the discussion branched from the whiteness of Hollywood to the relative invisibility of different communities of color. But both hashtags also reminded non-Black people of color of the central role Black protest and creative expression has played in moving us all toward cultural equity. After all, “I, Too” had reappropriated Langston Hughes. For years, Black directors, producers, and writers had been the champions of opportunities for other non-whites. Jose knew all of this very well. By the next day, the conversation had moved beyond whiteness and invisibility to the stakes in the struggle for equity. It is the continuing strangeness and difficulty of race that all of these conversations have to happen at the same time.
But we must begin somewhere. So let us start with the whiteness of Hollywood. American popular culture, by its nature, trades on optimism. It wants spectacle with its trauma. It wants its laughs, its happy endings. This is the legacy of a national culture birthed in the twin narratives of cowboys-and-Indians and blackface minstrelsy.
It may also be true that we have entered into a new golden age of representation. Many of our biggest icons are people of color. Our pop landscape appears desegregated. Take television. For about a decade, from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, networks featured shows that centered on Black lives, from the groundbreaking Cosby Show to Living Single. But by the turn of the millennium, shows like Girlfriends and George Lopez were the exception. Cable picked up the slack, making stars of Dave Chappelle and Tyler Perry, and telling important stories on shows such as The Wire and The Shield. On the networks, characters of color had come to appear mostly in big ensemble shows, giving emergency rooms and criminal courts their verisimilitude of diversity. These were images of a “post-racial” America, mostly featuring middle-class people of color who were just like middle-class white people, except for the color of their skin.
In the first year of Obama’s presidency, ABC’s Modern Family reconstructed the suburban sitcom by augmenting the stock white nuclear family with an extended clan that featured a gay couple with an adopted Asian American child, and a patriarch with a gorgeous young Latina wife and child. In Hollywood elevator-pitch terms, it was Married with Children meets I Love Lucy and The Birdcage. But its surprise success made it possible for TV execs to gingerly step back toward shows with leads of color. For twenty years, Asians had not had a lead on television, but in 2016 Fresh Off the Boat, Quantico, and Dr. Ken were among ABC’s top shows. ABC was also home to Black-ish and Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. On Fox, Empire continued to crush the ratings. They were the big stories in a company town that loves to celebrate its successes.
So maybe it seems a bit rude, a bit vibe-killing to note that, despite all of this, Hollywood remains overwhelmingly white. But it does. In February 2016, when Channing Dungey, an African American woman, was named president of ABC Entertainment, she became the first person of color to head a major network. In 2014, less than 6 percent of executive producers and 14 percent of writers were of color.5 These numbers had barely changed in a decade. Hollywood may indeed be run by the most liberal whites in the country—some of them have written and acted and produced with the deepest of empathy. But they can never be a substitute for people who can tell their own stories best. That was the lesson of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and Empire’s breakthroughs, a lesson that needed to be relearned every twenty years or so. Millions wanted to see shows written, directed, and acted by people of color telling stories about themselves. Duh.
And yet the odds of a person of color breaking into the upper echelon of the culture, where the stories and songs and visions that we tell ourselves about ourselves—with all their values, meanings, and instructions for living—are gathered, made, and produced, and then marketed, sold, and pushed back to us, remain long indeed.
Culture, like food, is necessary to sustain us. It molds us and shapes our relations to each other. An inequitable culture is one in which people do not have the same power to create, access, or circulate their practices, works, ideas, and stories. It is one in which people cannot represent themselves equally. To say that American culture is inequitable is to say that it moves us away from seeing each other in our full humanity. It is to say that the culture does not point us toward a more just society.
ABC’s Black-ish. Courtesy Disney | ABC Television Group
Artists and activists have long demanded better representation for people of color, women, poor people, and rural people. They have asked: Who is represented in and through cultural production? How does their representation, underrepresentation, or misrepresentation undo or reproduce various forms of inequality? But cultural equity is not just about representation. It is also about access and power. How can important cultural knowledge survive? Who has access to the means of production of culture? Who has the power to shape culture?
By the end of the twentieth century most developed countries had established modern structures to support the production of culture. Funding for the arts came through four primary sectors: the state, the culture industry, philanthropy, and community.
Culture was an important tool to develop and project a national identity. Democratic countries such as Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, and Denmark funded the development of large cultural sectors through government ministries. But such state-sponsored cultural production did not necessarily imply the building of propaganda machines. That false narrative was a peculiar product of the Cold War and the culture wars.
In fact, before the Cold War, the United States led the world in building a robust, democratic cultural policy. The New Deal supported the art and the artists who created the enduring images, stories, and songs of the “American century.” Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothea Lange, Orson Welles, Charles White, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright were all beneficiaries. The artists exposed in equality in America. They forged a new national narrative that wielded values of inclusion and resilience against hardship and despair.
The culture industry reacted belatedly to this shift. Popular movies reflecting progressive values like It’s a Wonderful Life or On the Waterfront came long after the peak of the cultural front. At any rate, the Hollywood blacklist campaigns brought an end to this period of rich expression, illustrating how sensitive industry leaders were to the pressures of being labeled “red.” By itself, a culture industry concerned with a bottom line or political pressures would not lead toward equity.
As an answer to Soviet soft power, President Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965. The NEA played a key role in funding the growth of fledgling institutions that made up the arts uprisings of the 1970s and 1980s. At its peak, the NEA controlled the equivalent of half a billion 2015 dollars annually, and ecosystems of arts organizations from Appalachia to Los Angeles produced a generation of artists of color and women, queer, and avant-garde artists who would popularize multiculturalist ideas.6
But after the fall of the Soviet Union, right-wing moralists attacked these same artists and ecosystems by vowing to defund the NEA and NEH. By the mid-nineties, they had succeeded in forcing many arts organizations to close shop. Conservatives argued at the time that if an artist could not find someone to pay for their art, or fund it themselves, then maybe it did not deserve to be made. Consolidation of the culture industry followed. George Yudice has famously called this moment “the privatization of culture.”7
By the end of the 2000s, New Zealand, a country that is seventy times smaller than the United States, was appropriating $50 million more to its Ministry for Culture and Heritage than the United States was to the NEA. Between 2000 and 2010, state funding for the arts dropped by over a billion dollars.
Inequality in the American arts world now is more severe than even income inequality. Nationally, the top 20 percent of income earners receive 50 percent of the income. In the U.S. arts world, the top 2 percent of organizations garner 55 percent of philanthropic grants. Seventy-five percent of organizations serving underrepresented populations have budgets of under $250,000.8
Of every foundation dollar given in the United States, only eleven cents goes to the arts. Five and a half cents goes to arts organizations with budgets of more than five million dollars. One cent goes to arts organizations serving underrepresented communities. Less than half a cent goes to arts organizations that produce work related to social justice.9
For the last decade, many of the largest nonprofit arts institutions have been confronting the vexing question of “audience,” namely the steep declines in aging white patrons. Yet many of these same arts institutions seem to have little interest in questions of equity and instead seem to be positioning themselves to follow their narrowing audiences down into oblivion. It is too early to know if crowdfunding, the for-profit version of the age-old sweat-equity model so popular in the 1960s and 1970s, can be of service in the push for cultural equity. On the one hand, here is where cultural moves always start: with the enthusiasm of creation, in the spirit of beating the odds. But the odds remain what they are.
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Viola Davis of How to Get Away With Murder. Photo: Todd Wawrychuk for Disney | ABC Television Group, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license
History reminds us that desegregation is not a destination; it is a constant struggle. It took until 2015 for the Emmys to honor a Black leading lady. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” said Viola Davis, the star of How to Get Away with Murder, upon winning her award. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Spike Lee, who received a 2015 honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement before the nominations angered him into boycotting the February ceremonies, said in his acceptance speech, “It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio.”10
For decades, the problem was not even seen as a problem. Only in light of the justice movements and rising cultural activism have many of the art world’s and culture industry’s leaders tried to address the problem. One sign is the recent flood of reports documenting the extent of cultural inequity. Here’s a short list of their recent (re)discoveries:
• 87 percent of American museum leaders, curators, conservators, and educators are white. More than half of security and facilities workers are nonwhite.11
• Of the largest museums, theaters, and dance companies in the United States, none have annual budgets of less than $23 million. Of the twenty largest African American and Latino museums, theaters, and dance companies in the United States, only five have annual budgets of more than $5 million.12
• In a survey of over 1,000 New York City arts organizations, 69 percent of those polled agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel my organization is diverse.” Yet 78 percent of board members and 79 percent of leadership staff in these same organizations were white. The city is 33 percent white.13
And yet access and representation are only a part of the problem of cultural equity. Even if these issues are addressed, the question of power will remain. In a world that is no longer white, to borrow from James Baldwin, will the culture point us toward greater understanding and justice, or will it reproduce social inequities?
These questions had Jose Antonio Vargas disheartened the day after the Oscars. He worried that some might have mistaken his intentions. Two days later he posted an essay he had written entitled “Here’s What I’ve Learned About #NotYourMule.”14
First, he wrote that while “it would have been helpful,” he now felt Chris Rock was in no way obligated to speak for non-Blacks. Indeed, as the discussion had proceeded during the Oscars ceremony, Latinos and Asian Americans started their own hashtags to focus on underrepresentation. He concluded by saying that he did not believe that race was solely a “Black vs White” issue, but that he vowed to address anti-Black racism in his future work. He wrote, “. . . white people don’t always need to be at the center of the conversation.”
But there was more racial controversy lingering from the Oscars, in the form of tone-deaf jokes Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Rock told at the expense of Asians. Rock had tried to inject some humor into a required segment about the accountants’ tabulation of the votes. “They sent us their most dedicated, accurate, and hardworking representatives. Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz,” he said, as three Asian American kids carrying briefcases walked onstage to laughter and not a few groans.
“If anybody’s upset about that joke,” Rock added, “just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”
Cohen’s joke was delivered—unscripted and unapproved by show producers—in character as British wigga Ali G. “ Here comes yet another token Black presenter,” he began. He went on to say, “How come there is no Oscar for them really hardworking tiny yellow people with no dongs? You know, Minions.”
As with Sarah Silverman’s skits circa 2003–04, Cohen’s “post- racial” humor turned on the shock value of saying racist things in a faux-clueless manner to an audience that knew they were racist jokes told by white liberals for white liberals. Audiences could indulge in the communal thrill of laughing at the stereotypes while staying safely above it all. Here again was why white Hollywood liberalism could never be a substitute for cultural equity.
Chris Rock understood this problem well. The power in his art, like Dave Chappelle’s and Patrice O’Neal’s, came from dancing on the line between white flattery and Black truth. There was one way in which Rock’s Asian joke might have been made subversive, become the kind of grace note that Jose had been seeking. It might have made the joke, worthy of Rock’s cutting intelligence, something funny and uncomfortable rather than merely awkward and denigrating. Rock might have told the joke as a retort to the model minority myth.
Rock might have spoken to Asian American in-betweenness, pushed the Oscar audience to see beyond the threat of curve-raising automaton “tiger children” into a community made up of both math whizzes and sweatshop laborers. But then again, at this moment in history in that auditorium, before a nearly all-white audience that appreciated Black performance but rewarded only itself, while Asian Americans remained unrepresented and African American solidarity under-reciprocated—maybe not. All things are not equal. Perhaps that kind of joke could have been told only in the context of a more equitable culture.
Throughout his career, the folklorist Alan Lomax argued for the importance of cultural equity. He said that arts produced by diverse groups of people are socially valuable because they offer us ideas, technologies, and values that help us figure out how to live together. The real benefit of a vital, equitable culture lies well beyond the money there is to be made. It offers us a sense of individual worth, bolsters our collective adaptability, and forms a foundation for social progress. In that sense, cultural diversity is just like biodiversity—at its best, it functions like a creative ecosystem. The final product of culture is not a commodity, it is society.
But we are far from that ideal. If cultural activism and justice movements can succeed in decentering whiteness and improving access and representation—and all the evidence suggests that the odds on that are still very long—we will still need to address the ways in which we see each other. Perhaps one day we may no longer need an #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. But we will still have to deal with the kinds of inequities that made #NotYourMule. What, then, will a culture of transformation look like?
Excerpted from We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, published in September 2016 by Picador USA. Copyright © 2016 by Jeff Chang/Picador USA. Published by arrangement with Picador USA. All rights reserved. For more from Chang, read a chapter from Who We Be: The Colorization of America or watch the 2007 Walker panel discussion related to his book Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop.
1 Marisa Kabas, “How Chris Rock’s Oscars monologue sparked the #NotYourMule protest,” Daily Dot, February 29, 2016.
2 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “Academy Takes Historic Action To Increase Diversity,” January 22, 2016.
3 Chris Rock, “Chris Rock Pens Blistering Essay on Hollywood’s Race Problem: ‘It’s a White Industry,” The Hollywood Reporter, December 3, 2014.
4 Kabas, Daily Dot, ibid.
5 Writers Guild of America, West, “WGAW 2015 TV Staffing Brief,” March 2015.
6 Data is available at National Endowment for the Arts website. Figures were adjusted for inflation.
7 George Yudice, “The Privatization of Culture,” Social Text 59 (Summer 1999): 17–34. Also see: The Expediency of Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
8 Holly Sidford, “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy,” National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, October 2011.
9 Sidford, ibid.
10 Kory Grow, “Spike Lee Blasts Acad emy’s Lack of Diversity in Oscar Speech,” RollingStone.com, November 16, 2015.
11 Roger Schonfeld, Mariët Westermann, with Liam Sweeney, “The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey,” July 28, 2015.
12 Devos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, “Diversity in the Arts: The Past, Present, and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies,” September 2015.
13 Roger C. Schonfeld and Liam Sweeney, “Diversity in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Community,” New York City Department of Cultural Affairs report, January 28, 2016.
14 Jose Antonio Vargas, “Here’s what I’ve learned about #NotYourMule,” Medium.com, March 1, 2016.