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‘Survivor’ is an easy target for racial outrage

It's one thing to get upset at TV show, but how about real issues?
/ Source: contributor

Looking at American race relations today, it’s hard to quantify the current controversy surrounding the Sept. 14 premiere of  “Survivor: Cook Islands,”  CBS’s stab at juicing up its flagging reality series.

By now, most American television viewers have probably gotten wind of CBS’s plan to air the new season of its formerly-top ranked reality series featuring four tribes of five contestants, each team divided by racial ethnicity:  Asian, black, Latino, and white.

The show kicks off Sept. 14, and in the weeks since ‘Survivor” producer Mark Burnett first revealed the new lineup’s racialization, the prevailing tone of the debate has been one of outrage. CBS is playing “the ‘Amazing Race Card,’ “ thundered Ray Richmond in the Hollywood Reporter on Sept. 5.  

Lisa Navarrette, vice president of a leading Hispanic civil rights group, National Council of La Raza, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in late August, “I can’t  decide if the [Survivor] producers are completely naïve and clueless, or completely soulless.” And General Motors, a loyal “Survivor” advertiser for years, announced its decision this season’s programs (although the company says the decision is unrelated to the controversy).  

Such anger is understandable — to a point.  But as usual when it comes to public discussions of race relations in America, a thick swamp of hypocrisy lurks beneath the surface language of togetherness and tolerance.

Like the notorious image of Rodney King urging Americans to simply “all get along” even as Los Angeles burned around him, what we have here is an acute case of cultural cognitive dissonance, of social denial writ large and beamed around the globe:  American racial segregation is precisely as old as America. Yet these many centuries since slaves were first auctioned at Jamestown, we’ve learned to speak the language of integration, even as we live, work, and play apart. 

Why hate on Mark Burnett?Few Americans willingly cop to having racist or discriminatory beliefs, yet evidence of racial divisions abound, from huge gaps in employment, lending, and educational scores, to the occasional extreme expressions such as the dragging death of James Byrd in Texas several years ago.  Television, ever our friendly social mirror, has a mixed record of reflecting this dichotomy. But why hate on Mark Burnett for attempting to dust off the heirloom looking-glass and hold it before us?

For decades now, book publishers have sought to explore the enduring “race question” in America, churning out serious nonfiction titles and journalistic examinations.  And in feature films, we’ve been pondering race relations virtually since the beginning:  D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” presaged “Gone With the Wind,” which seemed totally antiquated by the time Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” appeared in 1967.  Throughout, audiences and critics all wondered if these fictionalized depictions of American race relations would incite racial animosity — especially in the case of Spike Lee’s brilliant 1989 film “Do the Right Thing” —  or quell it.

On the small screen, race relations have been primarily the province of documentaries, including several PBS series on the Civil Rights movement, and Ken Burns' award-winning series on the Civil War and slavery.  More recently, cable and network television producers also have attempted to deconstruct our long-running racial drama. In FX’s odd series “Black. White” from last season, a white middle-class family went “undercover” as a black family, and a black family donned white makeup to spend time “passing” as whites.

Those broadcasts garnered a good amount of advance press — and woe-is-us handwringing from some TV critics — but only fair ratings.  The familiar narrative through all these creative, reality-based examinations is a perplexed realization that most Americans — whether operating in the realms of politics, schools, the suburbs or political campaigns — accept the fact that racial segregation is still very much a part of our shared reality.

Yet that acceptance is apparently a far cry from our being able to publicly admit our own complicity in our self-segregation. Like the proverbial high school cafeteria, where jocks, drama kids, Asians, and whites occupy separate lunch tables, most Americans co-exist in their own ethnic comfort zones, despite the increasing rates of brown, tan, and dark-skinned emigres who continue to arrive.

Hence the surface outrage over Mark Burnett’s decision to divide Survivor teams by race, which strikes me as “lip service” at best, chest-thumping hypocrisy at the worst. Sure, Mark Burnett is one cynical man to have chosen this strategy. But he also seems to recognize that many Americans, while usually presenting a racially tolerant face in public, continue to hold tight to ancient stereotypes in private:  How else to explain the vast, persistent gaps between America’s predominantly-white corporate and political leadership, and the growing numbers of brown-skinned hoi polloi, struggling in the day-to-day to pay their rents, feed the kids, save a few nickels?  

It’s easier for us to get outraged by an upfront display of tribalism than to admit that we prefer our children hang out with “the right kind” of peers, i.e., kids who look like us, live in “safe” neighborhoods, and who’s parents earn “respectable” incomes.

At the same time, it will be interesting to see if the ratings for this gambit bear out some critics contention that the show’s racially segregated theme will appeal to Americans’ worst natures. If only AC Nielsen, the television ratings group, could devise a way to count viewers,  just for this new Survivor season, by racial ethnicity. Better yet, maybe CBS can launch a contest, taking place concurrently with each broadcast, to see which ethnic group watches the show most. Why, they could even come up with a stereotypical racially specific prize for the group with the highest viewing numbers: a chopped and dropped  low rider, if it turns out that more Hispanics watch each week; or a bulked up SUV with 22-inch rims should black viewers win. (Of course, they’d have to get a company other than General Motors to front the prizes.)

But seriously:  We can fully expect television critics and industry reporters from various news organizations to fan out across the land as the first few episodes air, pestering local black, Asian, Latino and white families to provide first-hand accounts of their reactions to the broadcasts. 

My question for these lucky critics (and for their editors) is:  What is the ethnic make-up of your particular professional tribe? And when is the last time you questioned your boss about integrating your workplace?

Amy Alexander has written commentary for the Washington Post, NPR and The Nation, and is co-author of “Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans.”