“Google firmly believes that everyone deserves to see themselves equally in every room and throughout the media we consume,” said a Google Representative quoted in Variety. Black representation in movies, TV, modeling, and advertisements has been on the rise since 2020. Brands are now recognizing that Black faces are in vogue and don’t want to be caught behind the cultural push for representation. “We see you, We hear you,” says Starbucks in a press release, voicing their support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) and urging their workers to wear their new “Time for Change” t-shirt ($19.99). However, despite Google’s touted stance on representation, the corporation sells tech to police departments who have been sued by BLM organizers for illegal surveillance multiple times. Starbucks recently fired Black union organizers who were inspired to announce the formation of a union organizing committee on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This hypocrisy is nothing new, it harkens back to the explosion of Black TV shows in the 90’s after the Rodney King uprisings. The aesthetic of change and progressivism has proven to be popular public relations coups for record labels, companies, and government without any actual material gains for the Black population at large. After major uprisings by Black Americans demanding rights throughout history, material demands for justice and equality are waved off in favor of increased Black representation in media as a concession.
The civil rights movement brought forth voting rights and equality legislation but its shortcomings were seen across national television. On March 3rd, 1991, a group of L.A. cops brutally beat Rodney King, a Black man, after a pursuit, causing a broken leg, bruises, and scars from a stun gun which bolted him with 50,000 volt shocks. Justified uprisings by community members came when the four officers involved were acquitted. An L.A. resident said, “We saw a verdict that told us we couldn’t trust our lying eyes. That what we thought was open and shut was really ‘a reasonable expression of police control’ toward a Black motorist.” The uprising that followed led to countless more Black and brown people being racially profiled by police. Black people were demanding freedom to move through their communities without state sponsered brutality and murder. As seen by the innumerable police murders that followed the Rodney King uprisings, their demands were not acknowledged in any meaningful way.
Interestingly enough, the mid nineties saw a huge spike in Black sitcoms, increasing by over 50 percent. By 1995, there were a record 18 Black sitcoms on the major five networks. Networks realized they could gain a new viewership by engaging Black audiences. By attempting to show daily Black experiences, these sitcoms appealed to a Black viewership that tuned in like never before. However, any hard hitting conversations about race that might rile people up were left on the cutting room floor. Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, who worked as a script writer for The Cosby Show recalls, “In the writers’ room, says Poussaint, the ‘Cosby’ staff had considered using the plotline as an opportunity to highlight racial discrimination at law firms. But they didn’t consider it for long…According to Poussaint, there’s one rule of thumb when it comes to talking about race on Black sitcoms: Best not to do it too much.” Cries for ending police brutality were brushed off by legislators while the media preferred to cover the dangerous rioters instead of giving Black people’s grievances the time of day. It might not be too far off to see these Black sitcoms as having a sedative effect. These shows portray Black people in a non revolutionary way, free from the police violence that real Black Americans feared, then and now. Networks became aware of a consumer base wanting change, and were happy to serve up some representation that would prove to be highly profitable, yet non-threatening to the status quo. Tapping into unrest in the Black working class, networks say, “we see you, we hear you, we see you are profitable.” This is not to say that Black people and other minorities do not deserve mainstream art that represents their experiences; that they can laugh, cry, and identify with. The insidious part comes in when justified uprisings and systemic racism are not addressed with genuine changes from the government, but rather only by corporations looking for the latest trend to capitalize off of. This phenomenon repeats and reiterates itself throughout time, right now it is on display in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The torch that the civil rights movement carried was picked up by Black Lives Matter, because even though a Black person can vote, they may still be legally murdered by the state on their way to the polls. BLM exploded on social media in the summer of 2020, when a video of a police officer kneeling on a Black man’s neck for nine minutes, resulting in his death, went viral. This was not the origin of a movement, but the rage and devastation over police brutality could no longer be ignored as the footage captured was objectively brutal. The injustice had to be addressed and government and corporations alike reckoned with the best way to subdue the people while appearing to take action. In an era of American history where any meaningful government social programs get hacked away at, even a lot of activism is passed off to the private sector. This explains the fumbling hypocrisy of Fortune 500 companies like Raytheon Technologies’ statement on the murder of George Floyd, “We have to respond clearly that racism, discrimination and hatred will not be tolerated. We must take this moment to embrace the fundamental values that unite us.” So corporations are tweeting, but what are we seeing now in popular culture avenues like TV, fashion, music, and movies? Fashion brand’s and modeling agency’s instagram accounts have been front loaded with photos of models of color. McKinsey & Company recognises in a report that while representation of Black people has increased in film and television, they can increase profits by “telling Black stories,” “By addressing the persistent racial inequities, the industry could reap an additional $10 billion in annual revenues—about 7 percent more than the assessed baseline of $148 billion.” In a capitalist society, social movements are factored into the entertainment industry’s bottom line. Viewers are shown a calculated, workshopped, and de-fanged version of their deep seated desires for change and for justice.
As the dust from protests taking place in all 50 states clears, we see that the government did not defund the police; in fact, “Most of the 50 largest cities swung left since the 2016 presidential election, but more than half of them maintained or increased their police budgets.” The racial justice gains touted by President Biden keep in step with the entertainment industry’s solution to demands for change: representation with no material substance. The selection of Kamala Harris, a Black woman, as Vice President was given to the masses as a solution to racial injustice. This appointment is literally only skin deep as her career as a District Attorney impacted the lives of thousands of Black people by throwing them into the carceral system for marijuanna violations. Biden now vaunts that his Supreme Court appointee will also be a Black woman. Meanwhile, last week a man was killed by police who utilized a no knock warrant; the same no knock warrant that resulted in Brianna Taylor’s death three years ago.
Black Americans have been in the streets asking for justice and it cannot be received by more representation in the modeling and entertainment industries while the majority of Black people remain economically disenfranchised and abused by the carceral system. The US government is asking Black people to be content with seeing themselves on TV while they are not safe in their own neighborhoods. Black faces in high places is a neoliberal political strategy that failed when Obama approved drone strikes on people in Afghanistan and bailed out Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis, leaving working class Americans of all colors in poverty. Representation in movies and TV is good, but working class Black people’s lives are worth so much more than Google’s campaign to bring equality to the music industry while armoring the police. This concession can no longer be accepted by the American people. Corporations celebrating Black history month must come with a defunding and de-armoring of the police and reparations to lift Black people out of economic disenfranchisement. People in power should meet the demands of the Black working class no matter what their skin color is. The illusion of a post racial society created by Black representation in media and government does not reflect the lived experiences of oppression that persists; materially uninterrupted.