Instead of a real look at black culture, Hispanic culture or any specific culture, we get “uniculture.” That’s how Felicia Henderson, creator of the Showtime series “Soul Food” and a newly minted executive producer of a BET family sitcom “Reed Between the Lines,” describes much of our current television universe. Henderson, who has served as a writer and producer for shows such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Gossip Girl” and “Fringe,” says the major networks often show diverse casts, but not true cultural differences. “I celebrate multicultural casting, but my concern is that these shows and these characters are only physically multicultural, physically multiethnic,” she says.
Network TV does feature sitcoms and dramas that attempt to talk about race and difference. For better or worse, some even make it a punch line, with race and ethnicity exaggerated for comic effect. We also see shows with black female leads, ABC’s “Scandal” and NBC’s upcoming drama “Infamous,” along with mixed-race casts. But the worlds they pretend to inhabit are not ones in which anyone really lives. It’s one TV cultural universe, with no room for ethnic difference, even among ethnic characters.
For that difference, you need to go to cable. That’s where black television shows that highlight the black experience can be found, separated from the rest of the viewing public. Magic Johnson just launched a new network, called Aspire, that will cater to black families. Part of this reflects how television is increasingly being created for and consumed by niche markets. Black channels for black viewers. Food Networks for cupcake lovers. Sports channels for football fanatics. Niche cable channels for the niche way we live.
Film historian Don Bogle says that although blacks and other groups participate in an integrated workforce, when we come home, we really “live in two different cultures.” That’s not an inherently bad thing, he says, but it would be good if network television attempted to reflect those differences rather than run away from them. Without these depictions, “African American culture and life becomes invisible for the mainstream audience.”
The most recent census figures show that although the number of interracial relationships and families is rising, most of us still live in communities with people who look like us. In 2010, William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, found that the average white person lives in an area that is 79 percent white; the average black person lives in an area that is 46 percent black; and that 45 percent of Hispanics live in Hispanic neighborhoods. The pattern extends socially as well, with a Pew Research Center study finding that 86 percent of Americans have a friend from another race. But when you start to look at groups of people — that is, more than one friend from another race — the numbers drop off.