Researchers recently set out to take a snapshot of writers and showrunners and the portrayal of immigrants in television, and the results aren't pretty.
UCLA's social sciences dean Darnell Hunt, known for his annual “Hollywood Diversity Report,” set his sights on TV writers and the folks in charge of shows for a report, “Race in the Writers' Room,” commissioned by the nonprofit organization Color of Change.
Hunt examined 234 original, scripted comedy and drama series airing or streaming on 18 networks during the 2016-17 season. He found that two-thirds of them had zero black writers. Eighty-six percent of writers are white. Ninety-one percent of showrunners are white; 80 percent are men.
CBS, The CW, Netflix and Amazon were cited for being part of a group where 90 percent of shows aired or streamed had zero or only one African-American writer. The industry is based in a county, Los Angeles, that's nearly three-fourths nonwhite.
“The outrageous level of exclusion in writers’ rooms has real-life consequences for black people, people of color and women,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said in a statement. “Hollywood must do better.”
Also this week, the nonprofits Define American and the Opportunity Agenda released a scorecard on how television portrays immigrants. Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees, Define American's entertainment media director, and Kristen Marston, entertainment media manager, parsed data culled from 40 broadcast, cable and streaming shows from 2014 to 2016.
While immigrants compose at least 17 percent of the U.S. population, only 6 percent of roles could be identified as immigrants, the duo found. Seventy-three percent of those characters were male. More than nine in 10 of immigrant characters that appeared to be white were cast in medical, scientific and military roles.
One in four Latino immigrant characters were portrayed as working in “lower-level professions” or were unemployed altogether, according to the scorecard. Half of Latino characters were portrayed as being engaged in criminal activity. The scorecard notes that native-born Americans are twice as likely as immigrants to be incarcerated.
“We need to combat the misinformation that surrounds immigration,” Voorhees of Define American says. “We remain hopeful.”
These kinds of portrayals, of course, could have an impact on our political discourse. President Trump has blamed lax border security for the rise of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, although it was born in Los Angeles' Koreatown. And he campaigned on an anti–undocumented immigrant platform, kicking off his bid for the White House by saying Mexicans are criminals and rapists.
“TV reflects a lot of stereotypes of immigrants,” researcher Marston says. “Blame is a harsh word, but people understand the power of the television narrative. The first step is greater integration and humanizing story lines.”