Interracial Couples and Blacks on Television

In the 21st century, the way that race intersects with television remains a thorny issue. Television shows are rife with racial stereotypes, and African Americans, Latinos and other minority groups remain disproportionately underrepresented in network sitcoms and dramas. That’s largely due to fears from television executives that minorities on TV would fail to attract viewers. Even supposedly cutting edge cable networks such as MTV hesitated to feature the music videos of black performers. Over the past few decades, however, minority groups have seen progress both on cable and network television. After more than 30 years without a black woman starring in a lead role on a network drama, ABC premiered the hit show “Scandal” in 2012. In addition, interracial couples, once anomalies on television, are now featured routinely on TV shows. This overview of race on television highlights some of the ways TV has fallen short in its depiction of minority groups, and some of the improvements TV has made in this area over the years.

Publicity Photo of Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover as Tom and Helen Willis. "Jeffersons" Publicity Photo
Today, interracial couples are so commonly seen on television shows they rarely provoke comment. How times have changed. Just decades ago interracial couples were considered controversial and as such were rarities on network television. When Lucille Ball wanted to launch her legendary sitcom “I Love Lucy” in the 1950s, she had to fight to get the show green-lit because network executives were concerned that viewers would question her marriage to a Cuban immigrant. Ball won her fight, of course, and the sitcom remains one of the most beloved classic shows on television. Television show “The Jeffersons,” about an upwardly mobile African-American dry cleaner named George Jefferson, also featured one of TV’s most memorable interracial couples—Helen and Tom Willis. Helen, played by actress Roxie Roker, who was African American, and Tom, played by Franklin Cover, who was Caucasian, often were the butt of bigoted jokes by Jefferson. In some ways, the experiences of this television couple echoed the experiences of interracial couples in real life. The 1975 show would go on to pave the way for other interracial couples on television, including on TV shows such as “Dynasty,” “General Hospital” and “True Colors.” More »
Diahann Carroll in a scene from “Julia.”. Wikimedia Commons
For years no black women could be found in lead roles on network television shows. That changed in 2012 when ABC debuted its hit political drama “Scandal,” starring Kerry Washington. It marked the first time in more than three decades that a black woman starred in such a TV show. Before that Teresa Graves starred in the 1974 show “Get Christie Love,” which was about a policewoman. Other television shows starring black women include “Beulah”—starring a revolving door of black actresses, including Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers—and “Julia,” about a black nurse played by Diahann Carroll. “Julia” marked one of the rare times the experience of a black professional woman was shown on television. Lastly, in 2013 NBC debuted the television show “Deception,” starring Meagan Good as a police officer trying to solve the murder of her childhood friend. More »
Michael Jackson's "Thriller". Epic Records
When MTV launched in 1981, it marked a shift in television. The network was edgy, youth oriented and centered on music. Plus, it was on cable television, allowing it to be more innovative than network television channels. While the hopes for MTV were high, minority groups, particularly the African-American community, criticized the network for omitting videos from black performers from its lineup. The popularity of Michael Jackson soon changed that. Before long, MTV featured the likes of Whitney Houston and Prince as well. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, when rap music became mainstream, black musicians were regularly featured on MTV. More »