Re “Bottom Line BET” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (10/29):
Coates makes some fair points about the nature of BET’s programming, but he makes the same mistake the NAACP makes with its intent to boycott one of the major networks. Hollywood (including the black-owned BET) may produce programming that stereotypes black Americans, but it is the American consumer (both black and white) who tunes in to this programming. If the solution were as simple as having Robert Johnson (the CEO of BET) alter the programming to reflect more positive images of black Americans, then why doesn’t Coates or some other good-intentioned person create such a new outlet? I suspect the reason, at least in part, may be that consumers would not (or at least not enough of them would) watch to justify the expenditure.
Maybe the NAACP would be better off networking with black businesses (especially entertainment-oriented ones) to create an alternative to see if the idea is at all feasible. Maybe the networks and BET would be proved wrong (i.e., that the color of money is good programming, not bigoted stereotypes).
But let’s be clear. Racism came a long time before television or film was ever invented. Culture cannot be changed from the top down. The Revolution will not be televised. Change must come from within our (i.e., the American people’s) hearts and minds.
Coates’ endorsement of the continued failed policies of the NAACP needs to be put into perspective. The focus of Coates and the NAACP on elite channels (no pun intended) to alter American opinions/attitudes about race is doomed to failure (even if they win their boycott). Rosa Parks showed us that ordinary citizens can do extraordinary things. Her action on a bus in Montgomery changed people’s minds and eventually laws. Instead of being critical of Johnson for being good at making money, Coates should recognize that low-paying jobs (i.e., the comics’ on BET) are not Johnson’s creation. Solutions to such issues can play a role in changing cultural attitudes as well. Bottom-up solutions like union organizing—where black, white, Latino, and others can see their common interests—will alter white perceptions more than some changes in programming at the networks.