Jeff Ross, the brilliant comedian who came to roast the prisoners in the Brazos County Jail and shine a light on the prison problem of the United States, suggested that this weekend’s Oscars will be like the 1970’s comedy "Blazing Saddles."
Have you ever seen "Blazing Saddles"? Remember the scene where the newly-appointed black sheriff rides into the all-white town to introduce himself? The awkwardness? The tension? The feeling that a single misstep could lead to a race riot?
On Sunday night, Chris Rock will relive that scene. As host of the 88th Academy Awards, he will walk across the stage to perform and entertain for an industry that decided to overlook every actor of color in the country for the second year running. No minority award winners will cross the stage to accompany him. Just a lone black man performing his art in front of a largely white industry.
Let’s be clear, this kind of result does not happen by accident. In 2015, the LA Times found that 94 percent of academy voters were white and 77 percent male. Who are the voters not? They are usually not black (2 percent), not Hispanic (less than 2 percent), not young (less than 15 percent are younger than 50 years old), and they are not female (33 percent).
"Creed" (which was rated 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), the Rocky comeback vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, had a black director, writer and co-star. But the academy voters neglected the director and the writer and the co-star, and focused on the performance of someone from their own group. "Straight Outta Compton" (which was rated 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) had a black director and an all-black cast. But the academy voters neglected them and preferred two white writers for nominations.
At the same time, the result of zero minority nominees for the Oscar is probably not due to overt, aversive discrimination. Director and Academy Award-winner Steven Spielberg (who is a voting member of the academy) is confident that there is no racism going on. He said on Tuesday, “I don't believe that there is inherent or dormant racism because of the amount of white academy members.” Clearly he feels that there was never any intention to be discriminatory.
So what gives? We have the usual suspects but no motive. A room full of white men and no racism. But the results are the same as if there had been full-blown cross burning. Zero black nominees.
In sociology, when we consider racism we try to separate discrimination from prejudice. Discrimination is racially motivated behavior, outward focused, easily detectable. Prejudice is a feeling, inward focused, difficult to gauge. The civil rights movement of the 20th century focused on discrimination. The success of that movement brought about laws aimed at protecting minorities from discriminatory behavior.
But in the 21st century we see a new expression of racism. Summarized by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (a former Aggie sociology professor) in his book Racism without Racists, this new form of racism is not overt and discriminatory. Rather, it is passive and preferential. It is called symbolic racism (or color blind racism) and it is the bystander effect applied to race — “It’s not my problem,” “I’m sure someone else will help,” “Everything will probably work out best if I just ignore the issue and move on.”
Symbolic racism may explain how the academy overlooked the contributions of black actors, directors, and writers for two years — all without any one of the white members behaving in a racist way. And symbolic racism is okay with tolerance. So there is none of that 1950’s style prejudice or discrimination. For it to work, symbolic racism feeds off of benign neglect and in-group preference. Passive yet preferential.
For the cycle of symbolic racism to be broken, these two social dynamics must be challenged — challenged by both blacks and whites (especially). Instead of benign neglect, we need to show active concern for those left out. Instead of in-group preference, we need to widen the circle and redefine our groups. We need to have a difficult conversation. One we’ve been putting off for a while. Too long, honestly.
So, I look forward to this weekend’s Oscars. Chris Rock is going to walk onto that stage and start the conversation. With humor and self-reflection, I’m confident that Hollywood can change and be better for the update. But first, I think I’m going to rewatch "Blazing Saddles".
Instructional Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology
Texas A&M University