Television is experiencing a “New Golden Age.” Television dramas and comedies are earning high praise for their daring and creativity. Though television still needs more diversity, actors and shows by African American creators have thrived. Shows like “black-ish,” “Insecure,” and “Scandal” are enjoyed by Black and white audiences alike. Slowly but surely the television landscape is becoming more diverse.
Although television is becoming more diverse, there is one group of African-Americans that is not represented on broadcast television, which still generates the largest audiences as opposed to cable and satellite, that is poor Black families. The representation of Black people struggling economically in a current day setting, renting apartments, dealing with “regular” people life issues are not being explored. Despite the new horizons being explored by African-American creators, this lack of representation matters.
In the early days of television (1940s and 1950s), few television shows featured African-Americans. Those that did feature working-class people. “Beulah,” one of the earliest African-American shows, depicted the life of a wise-cracking maid. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” chronicled the misadventures of the titular cab drivers and their families. Although these early programs featured working-class people, African-Americans objected to the stereotypical aspects of these characters. Protests against “Amos ‘n’ Andy” were held in some areas.
By the 1960s, the civil rights movement was in full swing. The leaders of the movement did not want reports of inappropriate or immoral behavior by protesters to sideline their progress. This concern about negative representation made its way into Hollywood as well. In 1965, Bill Cosby was cast in “I Spy” as one half of television’s first interracial duo. Cosby’s character, Alexander Scott, was a Rhodes Scholar who spoke several languages. As Dr. Donald Bogle, an expert on African-Americans in film and television, wrote in his book “Primetime Blues”, Scott was “a cerebral, resolutely middle-class African American action hero.” In 1968, Diahann Caroll was cast as the prim and proper nurse Julia. Yet again, a middle-class version of African-American life prevailed.
In the post-civil rights 1970s, the depiction of African-American life changed slightly. After the rise of blaxploitation, the most popular depictions of African-Americans on television showed working-class and poor African-Americans. “Sanford and Son” showed a father and son who were business owners, yet struggled to keep their junkyard and salvage business profitable. Although most know that The Jeffersons “moved on up to the East Side,” George Jefferson was not an educated man. He made his fortune in dry cleaning after living a working-class existence for many years. Moreover, even after his success, George’s manner of speech, tastes, and walk were closer to his working-class origins. So, while George’s home was on the Upper East Side, his heart was clearly in Harlem.
The most iconic example of a poor Black family on television is the Evans family from the classic sitcom “Good Times.” The Evanses — James, Florida, J.J., Thelma, and Michael — were so poor that they lived in public housing. The mother, Florida, worked as a domestic and in other capacities. The father, James, was frequently unemployed; many episodes dealt with his struggles to find or keep work. Despite being poor, the Evans family was depicted as a strong family unit. Moreover, though the series was criticized for leaning into stereotypes when J.J.’s character and his “Dy-no-mite!” catchphrase gained popularity, early episodes of the show still managed to explore racism in schools, housing, banking, and employment.
When “The Cosby Show” premiered in 1984, it broke new ground by introducing the first solidly upper-middle-class Black family on television. Unlike the Jeffersons, the Huxtables were educated with manners and mannerisms that reflected it. Unlike the Evanses, the Huxtables never experienced financial issues. In fact, in one episode, daughter Vanessa complained about being picked on at school for being rich. So, unlike its predecessors, “The Cosby Show” was never attacked for being stereotypical. This squeaky-clean image was not an accident: Bill Cosby hired noted African-American psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint to review the scripts for potentially stereotypical material. The show’s approach was successful. To date, no show with African-American leads has matched the popularity of “The Cosby Show.”
The success of “The Cosby Show” ushered in a slew of new shows with Black leads in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, nearly all of its successors featured middle- or upper-middle class African-Americans. The “Cosby” spinoff “A Different World” took place on the campus of fictitious Hillman College. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” featured a family so rich that they had a butler. “Living Single” featured young African-American professionals living in an upscale brownstone. “Martin” featured an up-and-coming radio and television personality. Although shows like “227,” “Roc,” and “Family Matters” did depict working-class families, few of the families could be considered poor. One of the few shows at the time to depict a poor Black family, “The PJs, was widely criticized and protested by Black leaders despite being produced by comedy legend Eddie Murphy.
The exclusion of poor Black families from broadcast television continues in the present. Many of the most popular Black shows feature ultra-wealthy African Americans. Though Luscious and Cookie Lyon grew up poor, they now run their multi-million-dollar music “Empire” from a stately mansion. “Scandal”’s Olivia Pope can easily afford to buy (and dry-clean) a never-ending wardrobe of impeccable white outfits. On “How to Get Away with Murder,” Annalise Keating’s financial standing has remained solid despite many personal setbacks. The entire first season of “black-ish” centered on the father’s fear that his family’s wealth would prevent his children from being authentically Black.
Clearly, portrayals of poor Black families are very rare. But why?
One reason for the absence of poor Black families is television’s rejection of poor families of all races. Television networks generate income by selling advertising during their programs. Moreover, most companies prefer that their products be associated with images of success, whether during the show or during its commercial breaks. Arguably, it is easier to sell products to an audience that has been primed to feel inadequate after watching twenty minutes of a life that they do not have. These inadequacies are then easily exploited during commercial breaks. There is no reason to believe that African-American viewers are different from other viewers in this regard.
Additionally, television has always had an aspirational quality. Since its early days, life on television has been neat and orderly. All problems — even the thorniest — are solved in thirty minutes or less. Real life, on the other hand, is harsh. One writer notes that as the economic downturn of 2007-08 caused real people to become poorer, television responded by making its characters even wealthier. Television allows viewers to escape into a world that is simpler. For a struggling couple, watching families struggle with bills on television may not be the best way to unwind after a day of working hard to relieve their financial stress. Because African-Americans face more financial pressures than whites, arguably, African-Americans are more appreciative of shows that depict upper-class lifestyles.
Another reason for the absence of poor Black people in mass media is Black people. As previously noted, the few shows that have depicted poor African-Americans — such as “Good Times” and “The PJs” — faced criticism from the community during their runs. Undoubtedly, those who protest what they perceive to be negative portrayals of African-Americans on television have the best interests of the community at heart. However, a larger question must be asked: Is the problem with these shows that the African-American characters are poor, or do television writers find it easier to use poor African-Americans to reinforce racial stereotypes?
The discomfort that middle-class Black people feel about poverty is not completely irrational. Research shows that in news programming African-Americans are depicted as poor more often than whites, and often in unsympathetic ways. Additionally, there is a long history of portraying Black people as ‘lazy’ and ‘shiftless.’ Because we live in a country built on the myth that anyone can succeed with hard work, poor African-Americans are frequently blamed for their own condition as an excuse to ignore the generations of racism that created poverty. Given this reality, a certain apprehension about these portrayals is reasonable.
Nevertheless, despite the assumed good intentions of those wishing to protect the community from inaccurate or embarrassing portrayals, there is a danger in policing all depictions of African-American poverty from television. Most African-Americans do not have the income or education of the Huxtables. According to the Pew Research Center, the minimum income for a middle class family is $42,000. However, the majority of African-American households earn less than $38,000.
Since most African-Americans are not middle class, when we object to portrayals of poor African-Americans, we undercut the argument that all Black lives matter.
There is yet another aspect to consider: the impact on poor African-Americans. Everyone deserves to see himself or herself represented in media. Lower-class African-Americans are no different. Certainly, ensuring that the only Black people on television are rich has a negative impact on poor Black viewers. What will poor Black children think about Black life when all they see is wealth? Moreover, as noted by writer Antonio Moore, by focusing on portrayals of wealth and celebrity, African-Americans run a real risk of lulling ourselves into a false sense of security that could distract us from pushing for real economic equality. The powerful influence of television can lead us to think that we can all be as rich as the people we are watching when the reality is much more complicated.
African-Americans can and should continue to protest stereotypical media portrayals. However, not all depictions of poor African-Americans are stereotypical. African-Americans, like other people, are complex people with complex motivations and varied life experiences. We should encourage the media to depict as many different facets of African-American life as possible as long as those portrayals include characters with depth and humanity. The humanity of the characters, not their income, should be the standard for evaluating the work.
Jimmie Walker, the actor who portrayed J.J. Evans on Good Times, once said, “You will never see another poor, Black family on TV.” Let’s hope he’s wrong. Poor African-Americans have stories to tell. We need to hear them.