Aired during the height of political mayhem, Black-ish’s (2014-present) “Lemons” episode (originally aired 11 Jan 2017) dealt with the impact of the election and inauguration of the United States’ 45th president, Donald Trump. Overall, the episode details the Johnson family’s reactions to Hillary Clinton’s loss, emphasizing a conversation between Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson’s coworkers as they try to determine who is to blame (revealing that one of them even voted for Trump). Black-ish premiered in 2014 and has been critically admired for its tendency to discuss and highlight issues for African Americans in the contemporary US. In the past, Black-ish has discussed police brutality (“Hope”) and having a biracial identity (“Being Bow-racial”), among other complex issues. Additionally, a running gag of the series is the obviously racist and sexist Mr. Stevens, who Dre works with. Though the show portrays his ridiculous racist statements as humorous and outdated, it is possible that white viewers could interpret this character as expressing their own views, rather than being a comedic, mocked character. Also worth noting, as this episode (“Lemons”) is specifically about Trump being elected president, Trump did tweet in 2014 that the show was racist against white people.
Jennifer Esposito (2009), in “What Does Race Have to Do with Ugly Betty?: An Analysis of Privilege and Postracial(?) Representations on a Television Sitcom,” defines the idea of postracial or colorblind ideology as “meaning that we have moved beyond race and that race no longer structures our thinking or actions” (521-2). Subsequently, as Esposito (2009) details, racism becomes something which is committed against individuals, minimizing the institutionalized and structural inequalities present in the US (522). Both postracial and colorblind discourses are, as Eposito (2009) states, “destructive because such understandings silence race talk. If race no longer matters, then people of all races have no way of communicating about racial privileges and injustices, and instead, race becomes an uncomfortable topic. Should a white person speak of race, he or she is made to feel racist. Should a person of color speak of race, he or she is made to feel angry” (522-3). This, in turn, replicates the systemic qualities of racism while simultaneously claiming that racism does not exist anymore and is irrelevant in contemporary US society.
This episode of Black-ish, among others, makes a statement by demonstrating the reality of racism, in addition to its systemic and historic qualities in America. In fact, Dre details how “this system has never worked for us,” and how African Americans have been disadvantaged in America since slavery (“Lemons”).
Obviously, this blatant reference to not only racism itself but its integration with the founding of the United States would not seem to be a topic discussed by a sitcom.
An overall issue with the progressive content of ABC’s Black-ish relates to the ideologies of meritocracy constantly replicated. Esposito (2009) states that meritocracy “is the recognition of individual merit and the belief that anyone (regardless of life circumstance) can achieve the ‘American dream’ as long as he or she works hard enough to attain it” (523). As such, meritocracy is reflective of postracial ideologies, and “allows the privileged to place blame on the marginalized for any failure to achieve. Meritocracy promotes guilt and self-blame as well because it encourages people to believe that their successes and failures are largely a matter of personal responsibility instead of the result of systemic oppression or privilege” (Esposito 2009, 524). This is where Black-ish directly ties to past criticism of The Cosby Show (1984-1992).
As Christine Acham (2013) states in relation to an episode of The Cosby Show, “there is an understated but clear commentary on class. One of the great American myths is that anyone who just tries hard enough will succeed, that if one just pulls oneself up by the bootstraps, one can achieve the American dream” (107).
Crucially, The Cosby Show was reflective of its contemporary political atmosphere in America under Ronald Reagan. The 1980s US saw the beginning foundations of neoliberal ideologies in politics, something that is further replicated today. Neoliberalism highlights how race, among other social identities, are something to be individualized and commodified, emphasizing the rhetoric of meritocracy. As Rosalind Gill (2007) states, “[n]eoliberalism is understood increasingly as constructing individuals are entrepreneurial actors who are rational, calculating and self-regulating. The individual must bear full responsibility for their life biography, no matter how severe the constraints upon their action” (163). Thus, neoliberalism and meritocracy come hand in hand.
These ideologies are reflected in Black-ish’s decision to have both Dre and Rainbow “Bow” Johnson come from poor families. Despite their financial beginnings, both Dre and Bow have successfully reached high levels of financial wealth, as a marketing executive and doctor, respectively. Dre’s love of sneakers is constantly mentioned, and his closet speaks for itself.
Though Black-ish has opened somewhat of a conversation of the wealth the family has gained, the series consistently reinforces how Dre and Bow have worked hard enough to be able to get where they are today, silencing discussions of how race has effected their backstories. Of course, the direct call to systemic racism is included in “Lemons,” but only in a time when, arguably, an extremely racist and sexist rich white man has become our president and police violence against black men is becoming too hard to deny or ignore with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Thus, Black-ish does replicate some of the meritocratic idea from neoliberal ideology that was seen in The Cosby Show. Yet, the series does make important commentary on race in twenty-fist century America that is refreshing to see on primetime network television.
Acham, Christine. 2013. “The Cosby Show: Representing Race.” In How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, 103-111. New York: New York University Press.
Esposito, Jennifer. 2009. “What Does Race Have to Do with Ugly Betty?: An Analysis of Privilege and Postracial(?) Representations on a Television Sitcom.” Television and New Media 10 (6): 521-535.
Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2): 147-166.