The presence of black writers in the room directly affects how television shows handle racial subjects, including the criminal justice system, a new study has found.
Racial justice organization Color of Change commissioned UCLA dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American studies Darnell Hunt to write Race in the Writers’ Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories That Shape America. The report examined 234 broadcast, cable and streaming scripted series from the 2016-17 season and found that two-thirds of the shows had no black writers in their rooms. In all, black writers accounted for just 4.8 percent of the 3,817 staffed scribes.
Those writers were predominantly staffed on shows led by black showrunners, who represented just 5.1 percent of the pool. Two-thirds of those series had five or more black writers in their rooms, although all had multiple white writers as well. By contrast, 69.1 percent of white-led writers rooms had no black writers at all.
No Hulu series employed a black writer, while every show on AMC, Showtime and TBS had zero or just one black writer, as did 23 of 25 CBS series and 14 of 15 CW series. According to the report, having just one black writer in the room is seldom enough to affect change. Hunt interviewed five such writers, who said they felt alienated or unsupported in the workplace.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate or healthy for a nonwhite person to discuss race in normal writers’ rooms because you’re just too outnumbered, and people get too defensive,” said one black writer. Added another: “The worst thing in the world is making your boss feel like a racist … and most of these people are liberals.”
The report also criticized network diversity writing programs, which subsidize staff positions for underrepresented writers on each of their shows in hopes of incentivizing showrunners to diversify their rooms and give emerging talent their big break.
In reality, however, “anecdotal evidence suggests that the lower-level writers of color who fulfill this function are rarely integrated into the creative process in any meaningful way,” Hunt writes. “It appears as if some showrunners exploit the free position as little more than temporary ‘window dressing’ to mask what would otherwise be racially homogenous rooms.”
One black writer corroborated Hunt’s assertion that “diversity slots” may be “dead-end positions for entry-level black writers.” His former showrunner said he “was actually going to start costing the production money [now that he had been on staff for two seasons] and they needed to find another person of color who will be cheaper,” according to the writer.
In contrast to these writers rooms that the report calls “isolated,” rooms that are “included” (at least three writers of color) and “liberated” (black showrunners with five or more black writers) produced more complex or nuanced black characters and storylines. These shows also were more likely to acknowledge the continued existence of racial inequality and structural racism.
“Just to cite one example, crime procedurals greatly influence the public ‘truth’ about crime, the official public story and our common reference points. We know this shapes both what people think about black people in real life and the public policies and political rhetoric they do or do not support,” writes Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson in his foreword to the report. “Presently, however, there are no incentives within the industry — and not nearly enough leverage outside of it — to change the storytelling practices that lead to so much harm. It all comes down to changing the conditions that presently sustain those practices, i.e., the balance of power in writers’ rooms.”