The howls were loud and long when the producers of CBS's Survivor show announced in August that they would racially segregate contestants on their opening segment September 14. The more charitable critics blasted it as cheap ploy to boost ratings. The harsher ones blasted it as an invitation to start a new race war. There was even some loose talk about boycotting the show and its sponsors, but that didn't, nor should it have gone anywhere.
That will virtually guarantee the ratings rocket burst that the show's producers want. In fact, they made no secret that they hope that the controversy will jump start its flagging ratings.
But the show's producers realize that touting racial segregation to get a point or two bump up in ratings is much too brash and crass. The fall back defense is that the experiment as they call it will promote diversity. And they're probably right.
Survivor has been hammered for the scarcity of black and brown faces. If it takes segregation to get more of them on there, than so be it. But that won't last. In past episodes the show has paired contestants by age and gender and they eventually merged with each other. The same will happen with the racially paired contestants. But even if the contestants had remained gender and age pigeonholed, the contestants eventually rub shoulders with each other during the competition.
Sadly, millions of Americans won't do the same. The Sunday church hour is still as the old saying goes one of the most segregated hours in America. In school cafeterias, office lunchrooms, and at countless social events, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and whites more often than not huddle tightly together in their separate racial enclaves. There is no prohibition against them mixing and mingling, but it's simply chalked up to personal and social preference.
The recent incident in which a white Coushatta, Louisiana school bus driver ordered a handful of black students to the back of her bus drew rage and protest from black parents. The driver was properly reprimanded. But if she hadn't done a dumb, mindless act, the black and white children probably would have arranged their seating along racial lines anyway.
The reality of self-segregation was revealing and embarrassing at a recent gathering of top Latino, black, white and Asian activists in Los Angeles. The issue was of all things how to reduce ethnic tensions following racially charged incidences of violence in the schools and jails. Midway through the meeting one of the participants stood up and demanded that the group look around the room and note how the participants were sitting. We did, and sure enough, the blacks were sitting with the blacks, the Latinos with the Latinos, the Asians with the Asians, and the whites next to each other. He didn't have to say what we all thought. If those that regard themselves as the most enlightened, and proactive on racial issues, self-segregate, than it takes little imagination to figure that bridging the racial divide is a tough one. And it's getting tougher.
Most big city schools are more segregated than a decade ago, and they are also poorer and miserably failing. Residential segregation is still the norm in most of these cities, and even when blacks and Latinos integrate neighborhoods, they often don't stay that way very long, white flight insures that they are soon re-segregated.
Despite the well-publicized shove to the top of black executives at American Express, Merrill Lynch, and AOL Time Warner, black CEOs are still a rarity at most of the Fortune 1000 corporations. The overwhelming majority of senior managers at these companies are white males. Many blacks discover that departments or divisions within the same company are top heavy with black employees and managers while others are virtually lily-white.
Years later many still find themselves stuck in the same dead-end positions, or stacked into the corporate ghetto jobs or positions such as director, VP, or manager of community relations, or equal employment opportunity or human resources, or assigned to oversee special markets (i.e. black or minority).
In America's jails and prisons, a black, Latino, or white inmate takes his life in his hands if he strays too far from his own group on the yard or the tiers.
That's only the big-ticket stuff of segregation. There are the less visible, and less easily provable, annoying race distinctions. The cabs that whiz by black or Latino passengers, the police officer that routinely stops and frisks young blacks and Latinos solely because they are young, black and Latino, and the galling indignity of being followed by security guards and ignored by clerks and sales personnel in department stores. They are thorn in the side reminders that race in far too many cases still matters.
A fantasy reality show did not make the real life reality of America's lingering, and insidious segregation. But if Survivor makes millions of Americans think, and think hard, about that reality, than the show should be applauded not jeered.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters. www.blackgopbook.com