All in the Family

Dear readers, friends, and all,

A story about “All In the Family” caught my eye. (New Yorker, The Great Divide, by Emily Nussbaum, April 7, 2014) It retells an anecdote that I’ve used many times, but somewhat differently. She recounts how this clever satire by liberal Norman Lear intended to defuse and ridicule racism may well have fueled it by reassuring many Americans that you could be a racist but also loveable—in fact more so than the righteous liberal son-in-law.

What she doesn’t mention—as one of its side-effects—how the students in our high school (or at least the Latino and Black students) were influenced by it. I was chiding them once—about 25 of them—on their perhaps over-reaction to sometimes subtle, nuanced or even misinterpreted racism. No one, I said (naively) would be baldly racist on prime time. That’s some sort of progress, I contended. Hands went shooting up. What????? The most popular prime time TV show is blatantly racist, one after another claimed. Again, I said indignantly, “name one!” With nary an exception they all pounced on “All in the Family” and Archie Bunker as obvious refutations. They were completely unwilling to even consider my claim that the producer, Lear, had meant it as an attack on racism. Could they all be wrong and just Lear and me right?

Thanks, Emily Nussbaum for reminding me that the world appears differently depending….. And if we care about racism we need to check it out with those most closely affected by racism. “I didn’t mean…” is not irrelevant, but it’s no where near as relevant as we in the majority tend, or perhaps just want to believe. (It still intrigues me that Lear didn’t check it out first on those he was intending to help!) These “misunderstandings” leave us—black and white—in different universes time after time. That is at least one reason why desegregating schools by race and social class would be good for us all. And also, occasionally more painful.

6 Responses

  1. I find pretty much everything I read by Emily Nussbaum to miss the mark. She’s far too young to have watched ALL IN THE FAMILY when it was being aired, and absent the sense of context of that era, any analysis of the impact of the show is likely to suffer from a bit too much “sophistication.” The show broke ground that needed to be broken, got conversations going that needed to be had, and if it failed to “teach lessons,” as Bill Cosby griped or to radically reorder American attitudes about race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., so what? I hate to remind Mr. Cosby and Ms. Nussbaum that shows can be subversive of the mainstream narrative without being didactic or sparking a revolution. Given the times, with Nixon still in his first term, the Vietnam war still in full gear, etc., a show that actually addressed issues like opposition to the war, homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and much else has nothing to apologize for or be ashamed of.

    Gee, some racists identified with Archie? No kidding! There’s a shocker. Yes, many racists, sexists, and homophobes identify with Howard Stern, even if the show appears to some of us to be satirical and Mr. Stern’s actual behavior outside of his show suggests that he’s a pretty decent human being. But of course, he still aggravates some people left of center, and no matter what he may have done to promote George Takei’s amazing popularity, he makes boob jokes, so he must be scorned.

    I’m pretty sure that few would put Norman Lear in quite the same category as Howard Stern, but the thinking that undergirds Ms. Nussbaum’s piece here (as well as her wrong-headed, in my opinion, pieces on the last episode of BREAKING BAD, and her later pieces on TRUE DETECTIVE) seems to me to suffer from rigidity and just a bit too much PC for my taste. She appears to feel that she either has to apologize for liking anything that’s a bit too male, or else renege on her early positive reactions to do a more predictable ‘feminist’ trashing and make us all safe again. On the other hand, no such apology need be forthcoming for a show like SEX IN THE CITY. I won’t try to argue just why that might be, but I find it not insignificant. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, she has to offer regarding the new season of GAME OF THRONES. Will too much nudity of the wrong sort require us to reject it, regardless of any other virtues it may have?

  2. I’ll be that Lear didn’t even think about its impact on the Black community. I wonder.

    We all live in our particular “bubbles”–we couldn’t survive i we didn’t. So popping the bubbles successfully without going nuts is not easy– It’s part of what a good school has to tackle. And acknowledge that they’ll perhaps never get it just right for everyone–we’re always, ten unconsciously–making trade offs. Asking young people to move out o their safe bubble is asking a lot–it’s dangerous–so we can’t be surprised when it often backfires. But.

    • I would be very cautious about drawing conclusions about how various elements of the black community in this country took ALL IN THE FAMILY. I suspect that there wasn’t anything like a monolithic response, any more than there was among whites.

      Furthermore, you don’t read about the impact of shows that portrayed black families as being just as moronic and cliched as white families were portrayed on television in various mainstream sit coms. Jimmy Walker, Urkel, even Fred Sanford, and many others of the ’70s and ’80s, made me want to vomit. No more so than did lots of other bad sitcoms. I still can’t watch anything with a laugh track and have yet to find a network comedy that engages my interest.

      Norman Lear had guts, which is more than I can say for most people working in network television in that era. His work strikes me as far more transgressive than most of the work of his era and of the ones that preceded it (with notable exceptions). Then again, certain comedies of the ’50s were branded as racist that I personally find to be brilliant. AMOS & ANDY (the television show, not the radio program) is still vastly more clever, to my mind, than GOOD TIMES and its ilk. The actors were gifted, and the show consistently represented the black community as having a wide variety of people from various walks of like: merchants, police, judges, attorneys (with one notable fraud, of course), cab drivers, businesspeople, etc. I’m sure I’m going straight to PC hell for saying so, but that show was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television. And ALL IN THE FAMILY has to be judged in the context of when it appeared. For its time, it was groundbreaking, and the fact that there will always be people in this country who fail to see themselves reflected in satire is not the fault of the satirists. See the recent flap over THE COLBERT REPORT as a classic example of what happens when we let people with irony-poor diets try to tell us how to react to satire.

      • Wouldn’t it have been worthwhile and possible to be brilliant, courageous and also consider how the most vulnerable might interpret its message? One reason we live in two worlds is also because we are afraid of being hurt when we leave our safe space. For young Black students that means shutting out a lot of the world. The impact of this should not be trivialized. Otherwise, much of what you say, Michael, is sensible.

      • But I’m simply not convinced that the impact was generally negative. Just as I’ve found a lot of black people who thought that AMOS & ANDY was funny and never understood the NAACP backlash against it, I suspect that there was a broader and more nuanced response than you may have encountered.

        That said, I tend to side with Lenny Bruce on these sorts of issues. He argued in one of his routines that if JFK and other prominent figures of the era would just say the word “Nigger” (sorry, but to be accurate, that’s exactly how he put it, and using “N-Word” would have undermined his entire point) over and over on national television (and he included other “hate” words like “Kike” and “Spic,” if memory serves), that the words would become meaningless and lose their power to hurt. I’m not sure he was 100% right, but I favor openness on language, on discussing forbidden topics, etc., and I just want to scream when people argue that a given word, idea, or topic shouldn’t be used or discussed because it might make certain people “uncomfortable.” I find that particularly heinous in academic contexts, and absolutely unacceptable in post-secondary and graduate school settings. Yet we’ve reached a point where instead of being more open, more protective of open academic and intellectual discussion and debate, and more staunchly behind the first amendment, we see speech rights under assault, particularly on college campuses, from both the right AND the left, perhaps more so from the latter in the last quarter century. I refer interested readers to http://www.thefire.org/ and Greg Lukianoff’s brilliant book, UNLEARNING LIBERTY.

        I understand your concerns and respect them, but I think Lear’s show needed to happen in order for the national conversation on race and other sorts of bias to move forward. I think his PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY has been a beacon of progressivism over the decades, one I respect and admire. Maybe it would have been useful to have had him speak to your students back in the ’70s so that both they and he would have gained important insights from one another’s perspectives. Had something like that happened, I’d have loved to have been there.

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