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The Reality of Race

For better or worse, reality shows are proving that television isn't color-blind

In his great 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed created a comic fantasy history of blacks in America with the concept of ''Jes Grew.'' The phrase (from slave girl Topsy's comment in Uncle Tom's Cabin that she just ''growed'') is used by Reed for the way an exciting, culture-altering black sensibility permeated America. Reed continues by saying that whites -- threatened by a bold, original aesthetic -- were using ''a new invention Television to scan the U.S. for Jes Grew activity.''

Well, with the April 21 ousting of Fox's American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson, Jes Grew activity became more prominent in American minds. And paired with Kwame Jackson's second-place finish on NBC's The Apprentice the week before, due at least in part to sabotage by Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, reality TV has officially become the nexus for that most fascinating, vexed, and charged American subject: race.

In scripted television, black characters in particular are routinely rendered predictable. In sitcoms from ABC's My Wife and Kids to UPN's Half & Half, African Americans are sassy; they may make whites look unhip, but they're ultimately accepting of the suburban status quo. In dramas, writers are anxious not to offend: Heaven forbid they present any behavior that might be deemed ''negative.'' On reality TV, however, blacks can actively step out of their assigned media roles -- yet the result sometimes is that those roles are reinforced with a vengeance.

Nowhere else on TV but American Idol would you hear a black woman say, as Fantasia Barrino did, ''My lips are big, but my talent is bigger.'' Soon after, Fantasia's hometown newspaper wrote of the High Point, N.C., native -- a single mom and daughter of a truck driver and a minister -- that her ''big lips and sassy personality have sparked a racially tinged national fight between Idol fans who love her or hate her.'' On the one hand, Fantasia's look, her aggressive response to Simon Cowell's criticisms, and her churchified vocal attack render her the candidate who has, as George Clinton would say, ''the funk.'' At the same time, is it a coincidence that the week after her baby was shown on camera, the singer was among the bottom three vote getters? Internet message boards reveal a quick-rising ugliness with comments like ''She is not married to the father of the baby.... Loose living is not what the American Idol should represent.'' Stereotypical reflexes are exposed with more immediacy in the reality TV arena, and not just among its viewers; the Idol judges lavished praise on Hudson's appearance the week she had her hair straightened (as they did when season 2's Kimberley Locke got a similar makeover).

Similarly, only on The Apprentice would a black woman be shown to be as cavalierly duplicitous as Omarosa was to her team leader Kwame in the climactic final competition. I don't doubt that Kwame truly did not know he had the power to fire Omarosa (one crucial reason Trump gave for choosing Bill Rancic): Harvard biz school grad or not, young black professionals are not bequeathed the ''rule book'' that white businessmen operate by via generations of example and privilege. Why did Kwame pick Omarosa for his team? I think he was being, to use W.E.B. Du Bois' phrase, a race man -- that is, Kwame felt some responsibility to pick Omarosa, knowing that he might ultimately impress Mr. Trump if he could handle her ''diva'' devilishness. You also have to wonder how these TV decks are stacked. Do the producers of reality shows choose (consciously or unconsciously) some black contestants -- think Survivor's Alicia and Osten -- who initially appear friendly and competitive but eventually show their ''true colors'' and either explode or collapse under pressure?

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