- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

None of them would be so reckless as to say so publicly, but major network television executives have little to fear when the NAACP threatens a boycott of their programming and major advertisers in connection with minority representation — or lack thereof — in their sitcoms, dramas and boardrooms.

As he did a year-and-a-half ago and again as recently as this past May, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume hit the talk show circuit in what has now become a rather sad, boy-who-cried-wolf ritual wherein he cites his organization's latest analysis of and pique with the networks' hiring of minority actors and corporate decision-makers.

This time Mr. Mfume insisted that, though there has been some slight improvement since last year with regard to the number of minority actors appearing regularly on programs aired by the big four (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC), there has been little change in minority representation among executives who have the authority to decide what is produced and aired.

"It is still unknown whether there is any identifiable African American who has the authority to give 'green light' to a new series or make final decisions relevant to creative activities," reads the NAACP analysis, tacitly acknowledging its own inconclusiveness with the phrase "still unknown."

Network spokesmen armed with data about the racial make-up of their respective creative and executive personnel, dutifully disputed the findings - and even the musings - of this latest NAACP report. And the Screen Actors Guild has weighed in with objective figures indicating that a record number of minority actors found work in TV and film last year.

So the networks say, and spend on yet the latest, costly school reforms until the cows come home. But if our minority kids, too often from poor, single-parent families with almost no educational resources continue to come to class ill-prepared to learn, then we'll never manage to close our horrifying racial achievement gap. And minority kids will be doomed to second-class citizenship in the Information Age of 21st century America, regardless of how many successful black actors and TV executives are driving around Los Angeles in shiny cars and taking lunches to chat up their next project.

Forget about the networks, Mr. Mfume should focus his organization's strength, such as it is, on the crippling TV-viewing norms of black kids and adults. If you really want to shake things up and lead, enlist the churches, civic organizations, PTAs, the black newspapers and radio stars. Implore and exhort them to join the NAACP in an historic stand against illiteracy. Scream from the rooftops. The very future of blacks as a people is at stake. If that's not a clear message that'll convince folks to turn off the boob tube every now and then, surely no mixed message about starving actors and frustrated executives ever will.

Darren McKinney lives in Washington and writes frequently about race and the media.

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