Last year, Orange is the New Black caught a lot of flak when, after it killed off a black character in a sloppy and painful manner that essentially ripped off the real-life death of Eric Garner, news surfaced that the Orange is the New Black writers room had no black writers.
While the source material was written by a woman, and over half of the writers were women (another Hollywood rarity) it was still surprising that a show that gave us so many memorable black characters had zero black people writing them.
Unfortunately, the utter absence of black talent in writers rooms seems to be the status quo for all of television, according to a recent study by Darnell Hunt, the Dean of Social Sciences at UCLA. Hunt, who has done a number of reports on representation in Hollywood, was approached by civil rights advocacy non-profit Color of Change to look at the racial breakdown of TV writers and showrunners. And the results were abysmal.
The report looked at 234 television shows across 18 networks and found that black writers made up just 4.8% of the 3,817 writers. Two-thirds of the shows had zero black writers on staff, and only 17% had just one black writer. Over 90% of shows on Netflix, CBS, Amazon, and the CW had either no black writers or just one. Of the eight original shows on Hulu, none have a single black writer. CW and CBS were noted as including women and people of color more broadly, but excluding specifically black writers and showrunners.
The study found that a huge part of the problem comes down to showrunners, who lead the way in deciding what writers to hire. Only 5.1% of showrunners are black. AMC, TBS, and TNT had no women showrunners and no showrunners who were people of color, and CBS, Fox, Hulu, and Showtime had no people of color running shows. Ninety-one percent of all shows had white showrunners, and of those shows, 69% had no black writers. On the other hand, 100% of black showrunners hired white writers and two-thirds of shows led by black showrunners had five or more black writers.
The study also found that, lo and behold, shows with more black writers avoided the kinds of harmful stereotypes and tropes commonly assigned to black characters by non-black writers. Specifically, there was a difference in how shows addressed 1) “black pathology,” the myth that “black people themselves are to blame for the socio-economic challenges they face in America”; 2) the criminal justice system and the racial profiling and bias that plagues it; and 3) racial inequality in a contemporary context, attributing “it to structural understandings of race and racism,” giving black characters “voice in countering white understandings of the situations portrayed.”
It’s impossible to deny that media shapes our perspectives. When black people are almost entirely shut out of the process of creating that media, we often end up with a very skewed vision of America that excludes and discounts the experiences of millions of people. Fortunately, there is an easy solution to this problem: Hire some more black people, Hollywood!