While I am currently working on political ideology on entertainment television in the 1970s, I do enjoy watching more contemporary television as well. Often, however, I am struck by how apolitical network television entertainment today is compared to the 1970s. In fact, the 1970s constitute a very peculiar period in network television. Especially comedies reveled in a new politically relevant humor, and the ratings ensured them leeway. But by the 1980s, the proliferation and weight of a wide array of interest groups had hampered the comedic freedom. Modern Family recently spent a story arch on Claire (Julie Bowen), one of the main characters, running for city council. Yet, her partisan alignment was never identified. This tactic is quite common in an industry that strives for as wide an audience as possible. There are few, if any, upsides in offending parts of your audience with partisan identification.
This is why I was so surprised to come across an episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish revolving entirely around the idea of the Black Republican. The episode starts with Dre (Anthony Anderson) stipulating facts of life, including:
“Black people aren’t Republicans, we just aren’t. We vote for Democrats. And it’s not just an Obama thing […] black people also overwhelmingly backed this guy [photo of Dukakis in a tank], this guy [photo of Al Gore kissing Hillary Clinton], hell 91% of black people voted for this guy [photo of Walter Mondale holding boxing gloves]. Fact: 91% of Walter Mondale’s family didn’t vote for Walter Mondale. Sure, the other side may trot out a token black face every now and again, but the fact of the matter is being a black Republican is something we just don’t do.”
The show often deals with perceived cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans, and the lopsided support among the black community for Democrats might seem like exactly the kind of cultural issue the show is used to deal with. Still, to have an episode of a contemporary network sitcom state as a fact of life that black people cannot be Republican certainly woke me up. The episodes storyline centers on Dre discovering that his teenage son, Junior, has joined the Young Republicans Club at school. Dre, his wife Bow, and his mother are all horrified by the news. Dre and Bow then set out to change this political trajectory. The episode is striking in how adamantly it stresses that being a Republican and being black are mutually exclusive. Talking to his white co-workers, Dre explains:
“You don’t get it. There are just some things that black people cannot do. All right? You can live in the suburbs and be cool. You can listen to the Dave Matthews Band and still be down. A black guy can marry someone white and still be good […] look, you can do anything, but you can’t be a black Republican. They are not down for us, so we are not down for them!”
As so often with teenage boys, in sitcoms if not life, Junior’s decision is influenced by hormones. At the end of the episode, Junior declares he is a Democrat after all. His sister takes the credit for this sudden change, explaining how she introduced him to one of her liberal, and attractive, friends. “Come on, Dad, I had to. Republican? We just don’t do that,” she clarifies. Thus, cementing the assumption the show started on, black people are not Republican.
Black-ish airs in a comedy block on Wednesdays, which includes Modern Family as its lead-in. Notoriously despised among conservatism, Modern Family is still a hit with a broad audience base, including voices of the right-wing. Given the context, it might seem unwise for Black-ish to potentially offend Republican viewers. Network television is an interesting venue for humor. The demands on the medium, and its business model, make it vulnerable to controversial subjects. In fact, network television can be an interesting measure for what is considered acceptable humor in a society.
I would argue that the episode highlights how broadly accepted the paradox of the Black Republican is. The definitive history of the Black Republican is the recent The Loneliness of the Black Republican by Harvard professor Leah Wright Rigueur. The book convincingly presents the historical context and evolution of the Black Republican, and problematizes the assumed contradiction of the black and Republican identities. Something television comedy can’t, and shouldn’t necessarily even try to do. In fact, Key & Peele did an excellent sketch on the subject of black Republicans, yet it essentially dismissed them as a monolith of affluent black men married to white women. Even with a black candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in both 2012, Herman Cain, and 2016, Ben Carson, the idea of a black Republican seems like a humorous oxymoron. The fact that the subject is deemed uncontroversial enough to constitute the main plot on network television entertainment, illustrates how strong, and widely accepted, the historical understanding of the Black Republican as an inconsistency is.