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Outcry Over `Law & Order' Shows Need For Inclusiveness
by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
February 1, 2001
Imagine for a moment that Homer Simpson was the only white man on television.
OK, technically he's more of an orange man, but work with me here. We're talking about the most stupid individual on television -- ever. And he's a white guy. The only white guy.
Now, let's imagine you're a white guy, too. How do you think you feel about Homer?
If you feel like I think you would -- which is to say, offended -- you might understand the fuss over Sunday in the Park With Jorge. That's a recent episode of Law & Order that fictionalized last summer's notorious ``wilding'' incidents during the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Central Park. As you'll remember, dozens of women were sprayed with water, groped and disrobed by gangs of men while New York's finest stood by and did nothing.
In the Law & Order version, there's also a killing. Suspicion initially focuses on the wealthy white husband of the wealthy white victim, much to the chagrin of the folks downtown, who'd rather arrest ``one of these Puerto Ricans who went nuts in the park.'' Ultimately, the killer turns out to be a young Brazilian. His attorney accuses prosecutors of targeting him because he's Hispanic.
Certain members of the Hispanic community did not, to say the least, enjoy the show. Manuel Mirabal, president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, says the episode, ``did not [offer] a positive portrayal of Puerto Ricans or Hispanics.''
Felix Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, was similarly displeased by what he saw as a ``shallow understanding of the Latino community.''
Their ire has prompted an apology from NBC. It says it will work to ``improve our procedures regarding sensitive programming issues'' -- whatever that means -- and has promised never to rerun the show.
For what it's worth, I think the apology is trite and useless. I also fear that Mirabal and Sanchez are obsessing on the small picture to the detriment of the large -- though my disagreement has less to do with their goal than with their tactics.
Nothing I saw in the Jorge episode raised my antennae. Granted, my antennae aren't Hispanic, but still. . .I didn't see anything that troubled me. Was the show a bruising and even provocative look at the role of ethnicity in politics and justice? Yes. Was it biased, or otherwise offensive? No.
Here's what troubles me: By reflexively crying foul every time an image is merely ``shallow'' or insufficiently ``positive,'' Hispanics and other minorities undermine the strength of their own outrage, making it easier for media to dismiss their claim on conscience. I also think that approach misdirects the energy of the struggle from where it ought to be.
Consider: If Homer Simpson were the only white man on television, white men could respond in one of two ways. They could meet with network brass every time he did a stupid thing. Or they could pressure that same brass to ensure Homer was no longer the only white man on television. Given context, Homer would no longer seem to ``represent'' anything but his sorry self.
Unfortunately, context is precisely what television has always denied racial and ethnic minorities.
Approximately 12 percent of the nation is Hispanic. But according to Sanchez, Hispanics account for only 3 percent of the characters in any given week of prime-time network television. ``And,'' he adds, ``if you took out the one-liner, the walk-on and the back-of-the-head shot to a Hispanic character, you are at under one percent.''
It's even worse for Hispanic women who, he says, ``are virtually absent from television and when they are portrayed [they are] in the service sector as a nanny, nurse or maid.'' There are, in other words, so few Hispanic characters on television that each one becomes inordinately important, each one a ``representative.''
That's where Hispanics and other minorities ought to concentrate their fire -- bringing pressure to bear by advertiser boycott and moral suasion to make television more inclusive, more reflective of their lives.
See, I'm not offended by Jorge. I'm offended that there aren't more Jorges. Offended that one character might be seen as a representative for 33 million real people.
If NBC wants to ``improve'' its ``procedures,'' that would be a good place to start.
Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column runs in Living & Arts every Thursday and Saturday. Call him toll-free at 888-251-4407.