White TV Actually Mirrors Increasingly Isolated White America

The recent media firestorm over the whiteness of the HBO series Girls is somewhat puzzling for two reasons: One, why pick on Girls when so much of television is glaringly white and two, why be surprised that a show set in New York City could still lack racial diversity?

Girls is being bashed for being all-white because it is at least not yet another show written by men about women. As Mauren Ryan writes over at the Huffington Post,

women and people of color, who are often treated as the tokens they usually are, are typically the junior members of a writing staff, hardly able to challenge those around them and push for the kind of stories that would reflect their lives and worldviews more accurately.

In other words, shows like How I Met Your Mother are forgiven their whiteness because they are not breaking through the glass ceiling in terms of who is writing the show.

The other question is perhaps more difficult to unravel because it exists in a strong tendency of many white Americans to imagine that we live in a postracial landscape. We congratulate ourselves for being ever so much less racist than past generations.

But when it comes to racial segregation, white Americans haven’t changed since our Jim Crow loving elders.  What commentators who criticize Girls for being an all-white show even as it takes place in the (supposedly) racially diverse world of Brooklyn ignore is the 500-pound white gorilla in the room. As an article by Jon Caramonica in The New York Times described the anger about the geography of the show:

“Girls” is hardly alone in its whiteness. Far more popular shows like “Two and a Half Men” or “How I Met Your Mother” blithely exist in a world that rarely considers race. They’re less scrutinized, because unlike the Brooklyn-bohemian demimonde of “Girls,” the worlds of those shows are ones that writers and critics — the sort who both adore and have taken offense at “Girls” — have little desire to be a part of.

But the truth is that Americans are as racially segregated as ever. As Rich Benjamin argues in his book, Searching for Whitetopia, whites have fled from the urban center and even the increasingly diverse suburban periphery to exurbs known as “whitetopias.” But even in the supposedly more diverse (and certainly more stagnant in terms of population growth) New York City, whites live in increasingly white spaces. The city has the same level of racial segregation now that it did in 1910.

Living in homogenous communities is most likely among the wealthiest Americans, according the Pew Research Center.

From 1970 to 2000, there was a 32% increase in the residential separation of high income Americans (those in the top income quintile) from all other Americans, according to one analysis of Census data5. Even with this increasing spatial isolation of the well-to-do, however, blacks are still nearly three times as segregated from whites as are affluent Americans from those who are less well off.

But it’s not just the super wealthy whites who are moving to white enclaves. New York is the second most segregated urban area in the U.S. (Milwaukee was the first). Certain neighborhoods in the city, like Carnegie Hill, are nearly all white while certain parts of Brooklyn are nearly all black.

The point is, whether or not more women start to write about women characters and whether or not more blacks start to write about black characters on TV, to the extent they write from their own experiences, those experiences are likely to be racially segregated. It is not the representation of this segregation on TV that ought to move us to action, but the reality of this segregation in our lives. A reality created not just by federal and bank policies that excluded black and Latino Americans from home ownership except through the now toxic subprime mortgages, but the sort of white flight that happens even in cities once there is a visible presence of nonwhites. This flight might happen for seemingly racially blind reasons, like “good schools,” “safety,” and “niceness,” but the real reason is that whites of all political stripes, urban, rural, suburban and exurban, seem unwilling to embrace anything but neighbors and friends who look just like them.

Return to Top