John H. McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley. He is the author of "The Power of Babel."
BERKELEY -- Remember Franklin in the "Peanuts" comic strip? In the wake of the criticism of mainstream popular culture for depicting a "whitewashed" world, Charles Schulz followed a trend by introducing this little fellow in 1968. But what was Franklin "like"? Charlie Brown was a loser, Lucy was bossy, Snoopy was insane--but Franklin was, well, "black." One of the TV specials had him giving Charlie Brown "five" once. But overall, Franklin had no personality traits at all. Beyond the tint required to render his skin tone, Franklin was a blank.
Schulz meant well. But Franklin was a classic "token black," and that era saw more than a few Franklins. Archie comic books introduced a similarly bland Chuck. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" included Gordy Howard the weatherman, whose job was to stroll in now and then for 30 seconds of chitchat. Knowing as we now do what Gordy's portrayer, John Amos, was capable of later in "Roots" and even in "Good Times" (which Amos made the best of), it is uncomfortable today to look back at him grinning his way through Gordy's forced walk-ons. Luckily "token black" quickly became a buzzword concept and by the 1990s was a virtually obsolete term. The creators of "South Park" even dropped in a black kid named "Token" with a "T" on his T-shirt, with the implication that the very concept is now so outmoded that we can laugh at it. No one could say that Avery Brooks' Hawk on "Spenser: For Hire," black-identified and self-possessed, was a token. Marsha Warfield's Roz Russell on "Night Court" was a similarly memorable persona and wasn't even the only black character on the show. Ever more often today, Hollywood is casting black actors with no regard for their race in choice roles. Samuel L. Jackson's musical instrument appraiser in "The Red Violin," or even Whitney Houston's pairing with Kevin Costner in "The Bodyguard," would have been unimaginable in 1968. The next Austin Powers girl is Destiny's Child's Beyonce Knowles, and the next Bond girl is Halle Berry.
And Berry brings us, of course, to this year's Oscars. That Berry and Denzel Washington took the top prizes was not the only heartening news. There have long been hints bandied about that the Oscar selection committees are racist, and it would have been easy for the voters to hand the top awards one year to two black actors for bread-and-butter performances in so-so movies. But Berry's performance in "Monster's Ball" was one of her best and easily equal to her competitors', and Washington's work in "Training Day" turned a workaday script into an electric, memorable film.
But there are other developments these days that are making me wonder whether it might still be too early to laugh at "South Park's" Token. I just caught the stage musical "Urinetown" in New York, hands down the freshest, cleverest, funniest musical to hit Broadway in 10 years. But it is marred by one of the most blatant bits of token casting I have seen in about as long. In an otherwise all-white cast, a black man is the only person on stage with no actual character to play and barely a line. He just fills out the dance formations and crowd scenes, obviously cast to duck the show being tarred as "all white." I'm happy that the actor has work and exposure in such a choice venue. But let's face that he is a singing, dancing Gordy the weatherman.
Of course, the young creators of "Urinetown" felt that they were doing the right thing. Affirmative-action policies began as a call to seek out qualified blacks to allow them access to avenues closed to them for centuries. But in the 1980s, too many distorted this into insisting that sheer "head counts" were the central concern, regardless of qualification. In this spirit, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has excoriated the major networks for not including enough "black faces" in their seasonal lineups. But as the producers jump to his tune, we find too often that Franklin is ba-aack.
Take Wendell Pierce, for example, an accomplished stage actor who drew rave reviews in the San Francisco production of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," which I saw. But two years ago he was cast as "the best friend" in former "Wings" star Steven Weber's two-season sitcom flop. His chemistry with the other actors was nil; he was clearly cast simply to, as they used to say, "lend some color." I'm sure Pierce would rather have had the work than not. But it was awkward seeing this artist cavorting perfunctorily with white actors looking like he had walked in from some other show--or worse, like a "Negro" token circa 1968.
This season, Regina King is stuck with a similar role in "Leap of Faith." This decent "Sex and the City" knockoff depicts attractive people in their 20s dishing and dating in New York City. King is cast as one of three gal confidantes, but again the writers think that King's pigment suffices as a character. Sure, now and then she gets a mildly "don't mess with me" kind of line, to lend her a bit of homegirl sass. But this alone does not make a personality. It's not that the kinds of people in this show might not have a black friend in 2002, nor is it that all blacks must be drawn as "street" to be authentic. But when a major character has no distinguishable personality, the script sags every time that character speaks. King grew up before our eyes on the sitcom "227" and has excelled in movies like "Poetic Justice," in which she was given a real role to fill out. But here, not only is she wasted, a promising show is weakened.
Is this kind of casting really progress? I would rather see black actors playing the live-action cartoon characters on the featherweight black sitcoms on WB and UPN than watch them spinning their wheels being set decorations on other shows. Mfume might be satisfied with mere "black faces." But the last time I checked, what we were after was treating black people as full human beings.
At this point, those creating these shows might feel damned if they do and damned if they don't, but it's actually very simple. When casting black performers, producers should find it as unthinkable not to give them characters to play as they would if the performer were white. Skin color is not a personality trait. To cast black performers without giving them any identifiable personality traits is so dehumanizing that it would be closer to doing the right thing to not cast them at all.