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Hollywood struggles with diversity in part because of laws that promote diversity

The FX drama Tyrant was roundly criticized for casting Adam Rayner, who is white, in its lead role.
The FX drama Tyrant was roundly criticized for casting Adam Rayner, who is white, in its lead role.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There are lots of reasons the film and television industries are dominated by white men, but one of the most unlikely is one of the centerpieces of Alyssa Rosenberg's fascinating recent piece on Hollywood's diversity problems in the Washington Post.

Writes Rosenberg:

As much as it is tempting to blame Hollywood’s diversity problems solely on the hidebound mindsets of a generation of power brokers, the same laws that protect against employment discrimination also block certain efforts to hire more women and people of color. Networks can set goals for how many female writers they want to hire, or how many characters of color they want to see on screen, but they can’t legally use quotas to reach those goals.

"You can talk in as great a detail as you want—‘The character is a 35-year-old Puerto Rican from the Lower East Side’—but the person you’re looking for can’t be required to be any of those things," explains SAG-AFTRA’s [Adam] Moore. "You’ve got audiences and producers to a certain degree demanding authenticity in what goes on screen. If you put an actor in a role that’s ethically specific and the actor is not that ethnicity, you’ve seen a lot of stuff play out in the press about how this person isn’t Native American, or this person isn’t deaf…They cannot, by federal and state law, ask these questions. ‘Are you Japanese?’ ‘Can I see your tribal affiliation card?’ You can’t do it. Even if it’s for the best reasons possible."

Let me repeat one of Rosenberg's key points: the same laws used to protect against employment discrimination also make it slightly harder to increase diversity in Hollywood, both on screen and off.

Obviously that's not the only reason Hollywood struggles in this regard, and Rosenberg's piece (which is worth reading in full) discusses several others.

But a persistent criticism leveled against casting directors by those in favor of greater, more accurate representation on TV comes when, say, an actor of Chinese descent plays the part of a Japanese person, or when an actor of Italian descent plays someone of Latino origin. Legally, a casting director cannot ask applicants to reveal their ethnic background. A good recent example of this is FX's drama Tyrant, which cast a white actor in the role of the son of a Middle Eastern dictator.

Such laws have served to protect people being hired in certain workplaces — where questions about race, religion, or sexuality could yield answers that spark prejudice or bias on the part of those doing the hiring. But they make certain aspects of Hollywood's attempts to diversify more difficult.

There's a problem with agencies, too

Rosenberg's sources also single out a particular structural problem within Hollywood as holding up efforts to diversify: talent agencies.

Says Terry Lopez, director of diversity for the Writers Guild of America, West, to Rosenberg:

"When I have our members calling me, showrunners, and saying I’m looking for an African-American male writer, they’re obviously not getting that from their agency, and the question is why? Do they not have those clients? If you’ve got a lot of demand, you’re going to have a higher supply. The agencies probably feel they don’t need to have that. We need the agencies to participate. We don’t really know what they’re doing in terms of finding diverse writers."

In short, much of the problem with diversity in Hollywood stems from the fact that so many of the business's gatekeepers are white and male. And that goes for the agencies, too. Because they act as one of the primary filters letting talented people through to have show business careers, they could help foster diversity in the industry. But as Rosenberg's piece suggests, this isn't yet happening.