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THE DIVERSITY TRAP: NBC bows to NAACP pressure and adopts new racial guidelines

July 25, 2000

‘NBC Agrees to Build Jobs for Minorities,” said the quiet headline in one newspaper last week. But the story wasn’t dull at all. In response to the threat of a boycott by the NAACP, NBC made a number of surprising concessions. It committed itself to “diversity goals” (i.e., much more minority hiring), the fostering of diversity at all levels, and mandatory diversity training (i.e., indoctrination) for all 5,000 NBC employees. Every NBC show that survives its first season will have to add one additional “diversity” writer to its team, whether needed or not. NBC agreed to do better with its “image portrayal,” which means more minority characters in shows, attractively presented. ”

Achieving diversity goals will be a key measurement of every employee’s compensation review,” says the memorandum of understanding. (Endorse the program or get no raises–a standard method of quelling resistance in diversity-minded companies.) The memorandum commits NBC to “25 yearlong training assignments within the news, entertainment, sports, and stations divisions targeted at minority professionals.” “Targeted at” is ambiguous, but it sounds as though NBC is setting up special assignments closed to white people. Can this be legal?

“The diversity machine,” a term coined by Prof. Frederick Lynch in his 1997 book of that title, has arrived at NBC with full force. As Lynch writes, the diversity machine is a policy-making bandwagon that rolled through the universities, foundations, and mass media, then into the professional associations and the legal system. It replaced limited and backward-looking affirmative action programs with “diversity” plans for proportional representation and a heavy emphasis on identity politics. The phrase “equality of opportunity” all but disappeared. One by one, targeted organizations were depicted as so hopelessly racist or sexist that they must be forced to accept rough quotas (euphemistically called “goals and timetables”). Liberal racists? Following this script required the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sporadically at least, to depict the television industry as racist, committed to “the denial of opportunity for people of color,” in the words of NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. But in fact the industry (Hollywood, plus some elite New Yorkers) is clearly the most liberal constituency in America. If these people are hard-core racists, systematically excluding blacks and other minorities in the entertainment business, we have some stop-the-press news.

Instead of making a diversity deal with the NAACP, NBC President Robert Wright might simply have announced, “Anyone refusing to hire or promote blacks and other minorities in this company will be fired. Anyone can compete here, and everyone will rise on competence and output, not group membership.” Oddly, the NBC memorandum mandates “hiring practices that include the consideration of all qualified writers regardless of race or ethnicity.” The regardless seems to fly in the face of the whole document. Three paragraphs later we are back on message, telling Hollywood suppliers of programs “to increase the number of shows per season with African-Americans and other minority directors.” The NAACP launched its campaign last July when the networks announced 26 new shows, none of which had a minority character in a starring role. But the new shows did have regularly appearing minority characters, and blacks account for 12 percent of all regular characters on the current network lineups, according to TN Media, a New York ad buyer. The proportion of all minorities was 24 percent for CBS, 15 percent for ABC, 12 percent for NBC, and 14 percent for Fox. Numbers were much higher for WB and UPN, which heavily program black-oriented shows. Minority writers and directors are rarer, but the whole picture seems one of openness and accommodation, not “the denial of opportunity for people of color.” An odd thing happened when the NAACP negotiated with NBC: It reached agreement without its minority allies, who had been present when the network presidents were summoned to appear at NAACP hearings. Latinos were angry and said so. They will make their own deal with the network, and presumably every other organized ethnic group will line up to do the same. This suggests that the diversity model, as it pervades the NBC culture, may be breaking down in favor of the old black-white affirmative action model of black demands and white guilt and reparations. The “diversity” writer that NBC will add, pathetically, to already successful new shows seems like affirmative action tokenism right out of the early 1970s. Also, putting some minority writers on shows as a result of a deal with the NAACP will inevitably cast a shadow over all minority writers, just like the shadow cast over highly qualified blacks on elite campuses by affirmative action policies. On Friday, ABC came to its own agreement with the NAACP. It contains a few standard diversity ideas, but on the whole, it uses the language of openness and opportunity, not the language of diversity engineering. It is artfully vague and avoids caving in on key points of principle. CBS and Fox should read it before signing anything with the NAACP.

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