In an interview with Variety, first lady Michelle Obama weighs in on diversity in Hollywood, going into particular detail about why she thinks it’s important that television and film represent people of all different backgrounds — to combat stereotypes and ignorance:
My mom says it all the time: "People are so enamored of Michelle and Barack Obama." And she says, "There are millions of Michelle and Barack Obamas." We’re not new. We’re not special. People who come from intact families who are educated, who have values, who care for their kids, who raise their kids — if you don’t see that on TV, and you don’t live in communities with people like me, you never know who we are, and you can make and be susceptible to all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes and biases, based on nothing but what you see and hear on TV. So it becomes very important for the world to see different images of each other, so that, again, we can develop empathy and understanding.
She cites ABC’s Black-ish as one example of a series that could potentially tip people off that hers isn’t the only functioning black family in the country.
Obama is concerned about the broad, lazy, and often negative generalizations that people who don’t have many personal relationships with black people might fall back on. Her concern is timely — the mindset that she says diverse TV can fight was expressed almost exactly in Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that African Americans’ lives are all complete disasters that could not possibly become any worse under his presidency.
"What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump?" he said at a rally last Friday in Dimondale, Michigan. "What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?"
VIDEO: "What do you have to lose? You're living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs," says Trump. pic.twitter.com/uw7cBzF6qV— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) August 19, 2016
The remarks have been widely criticized as sloppy, misleading campaigning and a sinister attempt to appeal to white voters disguised as concern for black people.
They were also simply wrong. For example, the Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote that it’s untrue that African Americans are living in poverty as a general rule. And the 58 percent unemployment number isn’t correct unless you count high school students, who obviously aren’t all looking for jobs.
But they reflected a more disturbing flaw, too: an inability to imagine that individual black voters could have lives and political concerns related to anything other than overblown generalizations about the worst things plaguing African Americans as a whole.
Yes, racial inequality is a real problem when it comes to education and economics. There’s nothing wrong with identifying that. But it speaks volumes about Trump’s mindset that he would talk to African Americans as a monolithic group, unworthy of either nuance or accuracy. You don’t hear him saying specifically to white voters, "You’re increasingly dying of suicide, alcohol abuse, and drugs! What do you have to lose?"
Trump doesn’t speak explicitly to white Americans at all, although it’s fairly clear — like when he talks about making America great again, referring to a time when it’s safe to assume nonwhite people had fewer rights and less equality — that they’re the intended recipients of his message.
Why? Perhaps because Trump, like many others, sees white Americans as the default, as normal, and as the only set of citizens whose struggles, priorities, and concerns deserve analysis that goes deeper than the grimmest statistics one can dig up — or in this case, make up — about an entire racial group.
The Dimondale event wasn’t the only time he’s revealed that he doesn’t think past headlines and generalizations about the plight of nonwhite, Christian populations. Far from it. He’s shared his views that most Mexican immigrants are rapists (while conceding that "some" are good people). He’s celebrated Cinco de Mayo by declaring his "love" for all "Hispanics" and eating a taco bowl made in Trump Tower, revealing that he can’t be bothered to distinguish between the groups of Americans with ancestry in various countries who identify as Hispanic, versus the origin of the Mexican holiday.
He’s cited a thoroughly debunked story about videos of Muslim Americans cheering after the 9/11 attacks, and said he wants a database of, and ID cards for, all adherents to the faith. He awkwardly pointed out a black supporter at one of his rallies, calling him, "my African-American over here." It would be hard to imagine Trump, simple as many of his statements are, speaking so dismissively about people who look like him.
Of course, the humanizing pop culture portrayals that Obama hopes can help us "develop empathy and understanding" — and thus be less like Trump — are up against a lot. As she alluded to in her Variety interview, residential segregation means some people rarely cross paths with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. A recent New York Times article explained how even well-off black families end up in poorer neighborhoods than similarly situated white families. Meanwhile, a 2015 poll by the Public Religion Institute concluded that 75 percent of white Americans didn’t have a single nonwhite friend.
While there’s less data that specifically supports Obama’s hypothesis that television images can change perceptions in a segregated society, it couldn’t hurt. After all, there’s a fairly broad consensus that negative, stereotypical, and unbalanced coverage can shape viewers’ thinking about people of different races. (See, for example, this 2015 University of Houston study about the effect of biased news coverage on perceptions of African Americans, and this Center for Media Literacy take on the potential effects of the long history of derogatory images of members of racial minority groups).
It stands to reason that the opposite would also be true — that characters who are more than caricatures might train viewers to see their fellow citizens as more than racial stereotypes.
If you do believe there’s something to the first lady’s theory about relationship between pop culture and basic literacy about the lives of nonwhite Americans, Trump has, at the very least, a lot of Black-ish — like, multiple seasons — to watch before he makes another appeal for their votes.