How Can Hollywood Help End Racism? Hiring Black Showrunners is a Start.

October 24, 2017 Janelle Treibitz

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

In many ways, Hollywood provides us with a litmus test of how our society is progressing on social issues. Television has the power to either reinforce, challenge or introduce new ideas to mass audiences. As activists and advocates across the country work to eliminate racial inequities in the criminal justice system and other institutions, we must ask ourselves: How do television storylines help or harm their efforts?

Color of Change’s newest report, “Race in the Writers’ Room: The Story Behind the Whitewashing of the Stories that Shape America,” helps to answer this question by turning a spotlight on the writers that create television storylines. The results are telling.

A photo of the Hollywood sign in Hollywood, California

“Race in the Writers’ Room” seeks to explore the relationship between writers’ room demographics and issues of race in storylines. The report looks at how television storylines handle some of the fundamental challenges facing communities of color and the struggle for racial equity: Do stories acknowledge that racism exists? Do stories acknowledge the structural barriers to opportunity faced by people of color? Do stories reinforce or challenge destructive narratives about Black individuals, families, and Black culture? Do stories legitimize the criminal justice system and the false assumption that it operates without racial bias?

As movements to end racism gain momentum in challenging cultural symbols and institutions, from confederate monuments to the Academy Awards, pressure mounts for Hollywood to take responsibility for its role in reinforcing or challenging racial inequities.

Unsurprisingly, the report found that writers’ rooms led by White showrunners with either no or only one Black writer were far less likely to deal with issues of racial inequity in a way that acknowledged structural barriers or challenged destructive narratives. By contrast, the study reports that “the presence of strong Black voices in the writers’ room – particularly when paired with the leadership of a Black showrunner – virtually guaranteed that Black stories were going to be told, and that they were likely to be told with considerable sophistication with respect to race in America.”

Given those findings, it is disheartening that more than 90% of the 234 shows examined by the report were led by White showrunners, with only 5.1% led by Black showrunners. The report also found that of the shows led by White showrunners, 69.1% of them had no Black writers and another 17.4% had only one Black writer. In comparison, two thirds (66.6%) of the shows led by Black showrunners had five or more Black writers in their writers’ rooms.

As movements to end racism gain momentum in challenging cultural symbols and institutions, from confederate monuments to the Academy Awards, pressure mounts for Hollywood to take responsibility for its role in reinforcing or challenging racial inequities. “Race in the Writers’ Room” shows us that a critical place to start is by hiring more Black showrunners and diverse writers. As the report points out, “the present political moment calls out for… popular storytelling that is more in sync with America’s racial realities.”

Researchers George Gerbner and Larry Gross wrote in 1976: “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” As we enter awards season, we are offered an opportunity to remind Hollywood that representation matters. Let’s take up that opportunity.

To read Color of Change’s full report and their recommendations, Click Here.

For ideas on how to take action to improve Hollywood representation and portrayals of  characters of color, specifically immigrants, check out the recommendations in our “Power of Pop” report, released this summer.

For ideas to help you craft an effective message addressing racial inequities, check out our “Ten Lessons for Talking About Race, Racism and Racial Justice.”