I almost forgot it was Black History Month. Thank you, McDonald's and National Basketball Association! It does explain why I've felt so good these past four weeks. Black History Month is important. It gives us -- every American -- a chance to reflect on racial progress and it gives me -- an African-American -- a break from cutting my hair and paying taxes. What a crazy loophole.
Of course there are many different measures of progress to choose from -- socio-economic, college enrollments, marriage demographics, even the current election. Those are all pretty boring. Those are all really boring. So what better way to measure ourselves than by examining how we see ourselves? I sat down to watch episodes of important TV shows from each of the past four decades. Some of them were popular, some were critically acclaimed, some were both. All were very different. In the '70s, race was part of the fabric of many of the most popular shows. Race issues were dealt with brashly and in an uncompromising way, but as the country matured and the hippies grew older and the cities were abandoned, the topic got compartmentalized.
The '80s and '90s introduced us to the "very special episode." The idea was that, to talk about a topic as serious as race, a show had to do more teaching then entertaining. Eventually such concessions were done away with as, increasingly, TV grew more segregated than ever. Networks like UPN and the WB were like sharecroppers promoting show about black guys in outer space or black guys who were Abraham Lincoln's butler.
Now it's the aughts, a time when television itself has been compartmentalized. Now more than ever, blacks and whites are watching the same things on TV. The consequence is that race is either neglected altogether -- a color-blind society -- or it is tackled head-on for the benefit of both black and white audiences. The four shows I chose, All in the Family, Frank's Place, Beverly Hills, 90210, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, represent slices of this slow progression. I wanted to see how wisely -- or clumsily -- TV has handled the topic of race on down the years, and illustrate the ways TV has evolved.