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TV's breakthrough year for diversity has Deadline asking if white people can get work

Taraji P. Henson on the breakout hit Empire
Taraji P. Henson on the breakout hit Empire
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This has been a breakthrough year for diversity in television. Fox's Empire became a ratings marvel. ABC's How to Get Away with Murder vaulted into the same stratosphere of success as its Shondaland sibling Scandal. Comedies like Black-ish, Jane the Virgin, and Fresh off the Boat found their footing and solid ratings. Not only did these shows depict nonwhite characters, but they also garnered the praise of critics and found loyal followings. It's a sterling achievement for all those involved, and a sign of progress for the American television industry, which has been — and still is — predominantly white.

But not everyone sees this as progress. On Tuesday night, Deadline's Nellie Andreeva made it abundantly clear with a strange piece titled "Pilots 2015: The Year Of Ethnic Castings — About Time Or Too Much Of Good Thing?"

Though the headline is posed as a question, Andreeva really is calling diversity into question. She quotes and uses the anecdotes of anonymous agents to say the strides that have been made in diversity are bad for white actors, and to dispute whether diversity is "fair."

Andreeva writes:

But, as is the case with any sea change, the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal. Many pilot characters this year were listed as open to all ethnicities, but when reps would call to inquire about an actor submission, they frequently have been told that only non-Caucasian actors would be considered.

Andreeva has a small semblance of a point here — castings aren't fair. Sometimes studios will only look for people of a certain ethnicity, or a certain hair color, or body type, or gender. The question then becomes: Why is this unfairness being brought up and magnified now? Were these agents as offended during the 20-year gap in television between Asian-American sitcoms (All-American Girl and Fresh Off the Boat)? Were these same agents as concerned with equality when the Emmys went 18 years without nominating a black woman as lead actress? And were they alarmed during the 2011–2012 television season when minority actors, according to the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, accounted for just 5.1 percent of the lead roles in network comedies and dramas?

The reason, judging from Andreeva's column and the agents she speaks to, is that there are now times when white actors are being shut out of roles.

Television is completely out of touch with reality. And white actors benefit the most.

These cries from unnamed agents and Andreeva's hypothesis might be taken more seriously if they were actually based in reality. The truth is that white actors have dominated television throughout history, and they still do.

The Bunche Center at UCLA has the most extensive study of gender and racial representation in Hollywood. And its 2015 report, released in February, found that white actors possessed 77 percent of the roles on cable television in the 2012–2013 season:

Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA

And on broadcast television, white actors claimed 81 percent of those roles:

(Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA)

In the 2012-2013 season, nonwhite actors and actresses only represent 23 percent of the roles on cable and 19 percent of the roles on broadcast television. That's out of touch with reality, where, according to the 2010 Census, 37 percent of America's population is nonwhite. That number has only grown since then.

To be clear, shows like Empire, Jane the Virgin, How to Get Away with Murder, and Fresh Off the Boat debuted this past season (either 2014 or 2015) and weren't counted in those findings. Their casts would represent nonwhite roles that didn't exist before. But it'd be impossible to make the argument that these shows have completely bucked the numbers and dissolved the domination white actors have over roles on both cable and network television — no matter what their agents, or Deadline, say.

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