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Back to a Diverse Future

October, 1999

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — It felt like deju vu, and I didn't like it at all. In September, I participated in a press conference in Los Angeles and a U.S. Justice Department symposium in Washington, D.C. The topic at both events -- minorities on television.

For decades, television network executives have been making ringing proclamations of their responsibility to reflect the great diversity of America. When called to task for their failings, they always asserted that they would do better the next season. But without a trace of embarrassment, the four top networks, CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, revealed a slate of 26 new shows for the 1999-2000 season in which all the lead roles and all the regular supporting roles are white. Bluntly put, they are presenting a version of America that is a bald-faced lie. I call it a white-faced lie. Look around any American city and one can clearly see that ours is a multi ethnic, multi racial, multi cultural society. What makes us unique among nations is the fact that Americans are the only people in the world who do not share a common gene pool.

Television plays an awesomely important role in race relations. It shapes and forms perceptions and attitudes about the people with whom we live. Used constructively, television can be a vital element in building a healthy society of diverse people. Used irresponsibly, it can divide and inflame.

Asian Americans are keenly aware of this power of television. The portrayal of Asian Americans in one-dimensional stereotypes, or, even worse, our absence from television, underscores the view of Asian Americans as not truly American. No matter how many generations we have been here, Asian Americans still are seen merely as extraordinarily Americanized foreigners. Whether in news coverage or entertainment programming, this kind of simplistic portrayal strips us of our variety and complexity and reduces us to just the "other." Thus, the suspected transgression of an individual Asian American casts a veil of suspicion on all Asian Americans. Asian American scientists are viewed with suspicion as possible spies for foreign nations. Our political contributions are questioned with no basis other than our Asian surnames. Over half a century ago, because this country couldn't recognize the distinction between Americans of Japanese ancestry and the Imperial Japanese government, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast were incarcerated in American concentration camps during World War II.

In offering a slate of new shows void of minorities, the four networks are reinforcing a dangerous fantasy — the fantasy that America is a white nation. This vision feeds directly into the delusions of white supremacists. It sustains their racist notion that minorities don't belong in America and need to be eliminated. In the last few months, three Asians have been killed in hate crimes in Illinois, Indiana and, most recently, here in my hometown of Los Angeles. Do the television decision-makers think they are not in any way connected to these troubles?

How can television have sunk so low since those halcyon years of Star Trek more than three decades ago? Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry believed in the credo, "strength in our pluralism." He envisioned the Starship Enterprise as a metaphor for starship earth in all its great diversity. The crew of the Enterprise reflected the composition of the many people that inhabit this planet working in concert. Roddenberry created a show that resonated with the television viewing audience, not only in this country, but all over the world. And the show has engaged the imagination of this global audience for more than thirty-three years. If television is an imitative medium, then there could be no better model for television executives to imitate than the vision of Gene Roddenberry. Let's go back to the future.

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