The Failure of the Civil Rights Act in Media and Entertainment

By: Adaoma Okafor

In the wake of racial and political injustice, Black people are pushing for more diversity, representation, and inclusion everywhere from the workforce to the media.[1] Given the Black presence in the fields of entertainment and sports, it is no surprise that Black consumers are substantial viewers in these fields. Overall, Black consumers are the largest consumer group in the United States.[2] This year, the buying power of Black consumers is expected to reach $1.5 trillion.[3] African American consumers are also the biggest consumers of television and tend to consume shows that are representative in terms of culture and relatability.[4] In the media, Black artists, entertainers, and icons are some of the most searched for in the world. In 2020, Google revealed that LeBron James was the most searched athlete and Kendrick Lamar was the most searched Pulitzer prize winner.[5] However, in the media, Black consumers are still seeking stories that are diverse and racially representative amongst various categories.[6] Cable and other means of television sometimes fail to tell those stories due to the choice of who is hired to be on screen or in the supporting production roles.[7]

Implicit Bias vs. Overt Racism

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark law that banned discrimination based on race – among other characteristics. Following the implementation of this Act, individuals could now seek redress for racial discrimination.[8] In addition to outlawing discrimination based on race, it specifically outlawed discrimination in the workplace and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate any complaints of racial discrimination in the workplace.[9] The Act has addressed overt issues such as discrimination and segregation in schools, businesses, and public accommodations.[10] However, like many laws, there can only be enforcement in certain situations when evidence of intentional wrongdoing is clear.

Racism can appear in two forms – implicit and overt. In media and entertainment, there can be implicit bias and overt racism affecting those on the screen and those behind it. Overt racism is relatively easy to spot and is protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[11] Implicit bias, however, is different. Implicit bias is “an unconscious association, belief, or attitude towards any social group.”[12] Implicit biases can lead to discrimination of particular groups that these biases are attributed to.[13] The Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect individuals against this type of racism.[14]

In the media, stories are usually viewed through the lens of whiteness. White characters can be everything from Captain America, a President, a murderer, a teacher, or even a Black person.[15] However, because of implicit bias, “[w]hen people of color are on the screen at all, they play the best friend, the whacky gas station attendant, the violent gangster or the exotic foreigner. They are defined not by their humanity, but by a set of stereotypical behaviors.”[16] In these situations, it is hard for the law to hold the decision-makers accountable for this implicit form of discrimination even though there are real consequences. Black job applicants are 50% less likely to be invited to interview for jobs than their white counterparts with the same qualifications.[17] This is problematic because while casting directors or TV producers may not overtly discriminate against particular groups, it still occurs, and it has a significant effect.

How the Entertainment Industry Can Improve

Regardless of the fact that Black consumers lead in consumption of media and have a huge buying power, Black consumers have and continue to be historically undervalued and discriminated against.[18] When Black stories are offered by cable and other means of television, it is sometimes done so as a means of Tokenism and not an act of true understanding and solidarity. Tokenism is “the concept that companies and institutions hire and admit Black people to convey the illusion of diversity and inclusion.”[19] This can be seen in instances where Black people are hired for certain rules but are simultaneously silenced.

More recently there have been instances where the media tries to rectify past alienation by hiring or giving a Black person a main role but then conversely telling stories that perpetuate a white narrative (cue The Bachelor).[20] Since its first debut in 2003, the first Black Bachelorette was cast in 2017 during its twenty-first season.[21] The twenty-first season was apparently “the most diverse in franchise history.”[22] Another example was in 2020 when Vanity Fair announced its first cover shot by a Black photographer.[23] In 2020, it’s not progressive, it’s embarrassing.

It is clear that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cannot police implicit bias. Black consumers also may not want to watch a show where the creators were forced to incorporate actors or creatives of color. Therefore, remedying this injustice starts with an act of true solidarity by people in the business of media and entertainment. While keeping in mind that the Black experience is not one experience, it starts with hiring Black creatives to write shows based on Black people. Black consumers can tell when a white person wrote a script for a main character who is supposedly living the Black experience. Stop hiring white actresses to play a Black character.[24] Stop wearing Black face.[25] Tell stories of Black people that do not always involve a Black man playing the gangster or a Black woman being “ghetto” or “overly independent” or “single and alone.”[26]

Supporting the spirit of the Civil Rights Act means working to change individual or collective biases surrounding creatives in the media. Race colors a lot of experiences, sometimes negatively and sometimes positively. It is important, however, that the discussion is not left out completely.


[1] See Graham Behlow, African American Spending Power Demands That Marketers Show More Love and Support For Black Culture, Nielsen (Sept. 12, 2019), https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-releases/2019/african-american-spending-power-demands-that-marketers-show-more-love-and-support-for-black-culture/.

[2] Khristopher J. Brooks, Blackout Day draws national attention to Black spending power, cbs (July 8, 2020), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/blackout-day-2020-black-owned-businesses/.

[3] Id.

[4] R. Thomas Umstead, African Americans are Leaders in Media Consumption, Multichannel News (Sept. 15, 2019), https://www.nexttv.com/blog/african-americans-are-leaders-in-media-consumption.

[5] See Jade Lawson, Black entertainers, athletes converge to deliver message of social activists, abc(Aug. 1, 2020), https://abcnews.go.com/US/black-entertainers-athletes-converge-deliver-social-activism/story?id=72117198.

[6] Understanding the Importance of TV Among Black Families, Nielsen (Feb. 10, 2021), https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2021/understanding-the-importance-of-tv-among-black-families/.

[7] See Id.

[8] Lisa Vox, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Did Not End the Movement for Equality, ThoughtCo (Dec 15. 2020), https://www.thoughtco.com/the-civil-rights-act-of-1964-45353.

[9] Id.

[10] Christine J. Back, The Civil Rights Act of 1964: An Overview, Cong. Res. Serv. (Sept. 21, 2020), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46534.

[11] Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981et. seq (West).

[12] Kendra Cherry, How Does Implicit Bias Influence Behavior,Verywellmind (Sept. 18, 2020), https://www.verywellmind.com/implicit-bias-overview-4178401.

[13] Id.

[14] See Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981et. seq (West).

[15] Tiffany McLain, Can Hollywood Shift Unconscious Bias?, Psych. Today (Sept. 08, 2016), https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-between-worlds/201609/can-hollywood-shift-unconscious-bias (discussing how white characters are unlimited in the roles that they play).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] See R. Thomas Umstead, supra note 4.

[19] Chelsie DeSouza, Non-Black People, Stop Confusing Black Tokensim for Racial Inclusion, Blavity (Nov. 24, 2020), https://blavity.com/non-black-people-stop-confusing-black-tokenism-for-racial-inclusion?category1=opinion.

[20] ABC, The Bachelor ,https://abc.com/shows/the-bachelor/cast/bachelor-2021-matt-james (last visited Mar. 24, 2020).

[21] Robin M. Boylorn, The Heartbreaking First Black Bachelorette, Slate (Aug. 08, 2017), https://slate.com/culture/2017/08/the-heartbreaking-first-black-em-bachelorette-em.html.

[22] Id.

[23] See Vanity Fair (@VanityFair), Twitter (July 14, 2020, 4:19 AM), https://twitter.com/VanityFair/status/1282998215743332352.

[24] See Harmeet Kaur, This is why blackface is offensive, cnn (Feb. 7, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/02/us/racist-origins-of-blackface/index.html.

[25] See Ama Nunoo, Outrage As Video Of Bulgarian Singer Performing In Blackface Goes Viral On Ticktok, Face2FaceAfrica (Mar. 19, 2021), https://face2faceafrica.com/article/outrage-as-video-of-bulgarian-singer-performing-in-blackface-goes-viral-on-tiktok.

[26] See Tiffany McLain, supra note 15.

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