Will Biden and Harris Finally Call Out Hollywood’s Diversity Hypocrisy? (Guest Column)

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden-inset-of-keli-goff
Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images; Courtesy of Dawn Bowery

The leadership mix at Hollywood's biggest companies is little better than the Trump administration, but Biden and Harris are uniquely positioned to "nudge and shame" their big-dollar donors on the issue.

When then-Sen. Kamala Harris condemned the lack of diversity of the Trump administration’s judicial nominees during the vice presidential debate, it was a powerful reminder that inclusion in senior leadership often impacts the makeup of the institutions being led. In contrast to the Trump White House, the Obama administration’s staff, cabinet and judicial appointees were historically diverse.

But while Harris’ boldness in calling out the Trump administration was admirable, she could have leveled the same criticism at many of her donors. Despite its liberal reputation, Hollywood’s record on diversity is not much better than the GOP’s. However, the incoming Biden administration offers a glimmer of hope that a major Democrat may finally force the industry’s power brokers to confront the issue for one simple reason: Few truly believe Biden will run for a second term. This, combined with his age, means Biden has a level of freedom to actually speak truth to power – including to his donor base — the way few politicians do.

According to a Hollywood Reporter article last July, 48 percent of 2020 presidential primary donations made by members of The THR 100 — an annual list of the most powerful people in entertainment — went to the Harris campaign. Biden came in second. While it’s great that industry leaders are willing to support a woman of color, it would be even better if they were willing to hire more. A Los Angeles Times analysis this July found that the leadership teams at Walt Disney Co., WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Netflix are overwhelmingly white. This year’s UCLA Hollywood Diversity report found that at 11 major and midsize film studios, 91 percent of studio heads are white and 93 percent of senior executives are white. The numbers at the major talent agencies are presumed to be worse. I say “presumed” because, as noted by advocacy organization Women and Hollywood last year, CAA, UTA and WME declined to share their diversity numbers. That’s rarely the move of companies proud of their records.

CAA and Sony have been among Harris’ most enthusiastic donors, but executives from Disney and other diversity-challenged conglomerates referenced above have also opened their checkbooks to Biden, Harris and other Democrats. (Endeavor head Ari Emanuel, Donald Trump’s former agent, who’s been criticized for WME’s lack of diversity and for being anti-union due to his battle with the WGA, was supposed to host a fundraiser for Harris during the primary, but she ended her run shortly before.)

Are Hollywood’s problems with racism and sexism so entrenched in part because the political voices that usually lead on those issues are afraid to do so with the donor class, who are part of the problem?

To use Harris’ debate reference to the courts: Those making the decisions at the top affect everything below them. When a presidential ticket and campaign staff lack diversity, usually their White House then lacks diversity, then their judicial nominations lack diversity and then our criminal justice system ends up unjust. Similarly, when there is a lack of diversity at the top of entertainment conglomerates, projects aren’t greenlit, not because of poor quality, but because executives may not understand them or understand the audience that would want them because it’s an audience they don’t interact with back home in Beverly Hills or Brentwood.

More disturbing is what happens when a person of color (or woman) faces inequitable treatment or harassment. Speaking from experience, if most of the executives with any real power at an entertainment conglomerate are white or male, and you experience any problems having to do with race or gender, no one will tell you it’s smart to speak up. #MeToo hasn’t changed that. Neither, unfortunately, has the tragic killing of George Floyd. Despite all of the Black Lives Matter hashtags, very little feels like it has changed, and very little will unless those in power are pushed by those with even more power to do so — like a president or vice president.

The Biden-Harris administration could easily pick up where Obama left off. With experts acknowledging that transparency is the key to ending workplace inequality, President Obama mandated that companies with more than 100 employees report pay data along racial and gender lines to the government. While that data wasn’t public, when the British government recently required the BBC to actually publish similar data, it led to a major reckoning. If companies in Hollywood knew that the ethnicity, gender, pay and titles of all of their employees would be publicly accessible, I doubt a column like this would be necessary because they’d suddenly find a solution to their diversity issues themselves.

It’s worth noting that after President Obama and other politicians criticized the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, more tech companies committed to using the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires a minority be interviewed (not hired) for head coaching positions. Though there have been questions about the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule long-term, a 2017 analysis in the American Law and Economics Review found that in the years immediately following its implementation, a minority candidate became 20 percent more likely to fill an NFL head coaching vacancy than before. But the rule can’t exist in a vacuum, and its success is fundamentally tied to other diversity measures. For instance, companies that utilize the rule and other diversity strategies have to actually bestow their diversity and inclusion executives with real power, such as the ability to hire and fire, rather than simply provide the company cover.

A president can’t force companies to do the right thing, but he can nudge and shame them. Obama got major corporations to sign the Fair Chance Business Pledge, a groundbreaking commitment to hiring former prisoners. If Biden and Harris drafted a Hollywood Diversity Pledge and asked their powerful friends donors to sign it, anyone who refused would be exposed as someone who doesn’t mind talking the talk on diversity, but won’t walk the walk.

With Biden and Harris giving credit to Black voters for boosting their campaign during their victory speeches, perhaps both will call out Hollywood’s hypocrisy more than other Democrats. Here’s hoping they do, sooner rather than later.

Keli Goff is a producer on the upcoming Joe Exotic limited series. She was nominated for two Emmys for Reversing Roe and is a contributor to KCRW’s Left, Right & Center.