Wednesday, 30 January 2013
America in Monochrome: The Lack of Ethnic Diversity on American Television in the Sixties
Of course, Mayberry wasn't the only small town on American television in the Sixties where the population was entirely white. Hooterville, the setting for both Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, also lacked any sort of ethnic diversity. As a lad this was not quite as jarring to me, as I just figured Hooterville must have been located in Iowa or another state where there were very few ethnic minorities (even today only 0.4% of Iowa's population is black). As an adult, however, I learned that producer and creator Paul Henning had based the show on his wife's experiences at her family's hotel, the Burris Hotel, in Eldon, Missouri. Now Eldon is very much like my hometown or any other small town in Missouri in every way, including the ethnic make up of the population. If Hooterville is to be considered a fictional version of Eldon, then, about 10% of the population should have been African American.
While as a child I noticed the lack of African Americans in Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show, the truth is that most ethnic minorities were not to be found in the majority of television shows in the Sixties. Even though Anna May Wong had her own show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in 1951, characters of Asian descent were still a rarity on American television in the Sixties. Hong Kong, set in the city of the same name, obviously had a number of Asian characters, but the same could not be said of other shows from the Sixties. Valentine's Day (the first sitcom to feature an Asian American as one of the leads--the great Jack Soo), Star Trek, and The Green Hornet are the only ones to come to mind to feature people of Asian descent in major roles.
Hispanics and Native Americans were more plentiful on American television in the Sixties, but only because of the large number of Westerns on the networks at the time. Even then it was rare that Hispanics and Native Americans appeared in regular roles on TV shows and it was quite common for them to be played by individuals who did not belong to either ethnic group.
While African Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Hispanics, and Native Americans appeared infrequently in the monochrome world of American television in the Sixties, other ethnicities were virtually invisible except for the occasional guest appearance, in which case the character might be an outright stereotype. Arabs, Indians, Pacific Islanders, and many other ethnicities were virtually unknown on American television in the Sixties.
Sadly, the short run of The Nat King Cole Show was not the only instance of racism on American television, nor would it end with the Fifties. In interviews Howard Morris (who played Ernest T. Bass and directed many episodes) has said that many people behind the scenes wanted African American characters to appear on The Andy Griffith Show, but found resistance to the idea from certain quarters. Another example of racism at the time in the American television industry can be seen in the unfortunate fate of what could have been Bruce Lee's first television vehicle. Producer William Dozier had developed a concept for a show called Number One Son, which would have starred Bruce Lee as Charlie Chan's oldest son having James Bond type adventures around the globe. The project came to an early demise, without even a pilot, when ABC made it clear they would not consider a show with an ethnic lead. I Spy was a historic show and the first to feature an African American man in a lead role, but even it fell afoul of racism. While NBC fully supported producer Sheldon Leonard in his casting of Bill Cosby, some affiliates in the South initially refused to air the show.
Strangely enough, much of the reason for the lack of ethnic diversity on American television in the Sixties may not have been a simple case of the networks fearing that they might offend white viewers, but of offending ethnic minorities as well. In 1951 CBS brought the radio show Amos 'n' Andy to television. It was significant as the first network television with an all African American cast. Unfortunately, the characters on Amos 'n' Andy were also stereotypes, which led to the show being denounced the NAACP and many other African Americans. In 1953 CBS cancelled the show, still doing well in the ratings, largely because of the controversy. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the controversy over Amos 'n' Andy African Americans would nearly disappear from everything except appearances on variety shows. Only Eddie Anderson as Rochester on The Jack Benny Programme and Amanda Randolph as Louise on Make Room For Daddy remained. Rather than striving to create respectable roles for blacks on television shows, the American networks simply stopped featuring blacks in any roles until the early Sixties, perhaps for fear of another controversy such as that created by Amos 'n' Andy.
Today American network television is much more ethnically diverse than it was in the Sixties. On Chicago Fire Eamonn Walker not only has a lead role, but he has a position of importance as Battalion Chief Wallace Boden. The sitcom Community has characters of African American, Asian American, Jewish, and Palestinian American descent. On Elementary Lucy Liu not only plays a female Watson, but one who is Asian American as well. Unfortunately, while it is much more diverse than it was in the Sixties, American television still has a good deal of improvement to make with regards to ethnic diversity. Hispanics are still under-represented on American television. While there may be others, I can only think of two show with recurring Hispanic characters: Vegas with Aimee Garcia as Clark County Sheriff's Department office manager Yvonne Sanchez and Chciago Fire with Monica Raymund as Paramedic in Charge Gabriela Dawson and Joe Minoso as Joe Cruz. As rare as Hispanic characters are on American television at the moment, Native Americans are even rarer. I can think of only one show with a recurring, Native American character and even he does not appear that often, and again on Vegas: Gil Birmingham as tracker Don Simmons. While American network television is much more diverse than it was in the Sixties, it still has a long way to go.