In the early 20th Century, African Americans were primarily featured in stereotypical and unflattering roles, such as comic clowns or in black minstrelsy — shows performed primarily by whites which mocked and demeaned black people as inferior. The first all-black sitcom to appear on television in the 1950s, Amos ‘n’ Andy, is demonstrative of this racist trend, and was taken off the air after roughly 70 episodes due to protests by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups.
It would be 20 years before black sitcoms would officially take root in American television. In the 1970s, That’s My Mama, Good Times, Sanford and Son, What’s Happening?, and The Jeffersons all appeared on major networks. In the 1980s, sitcoms such as The Cosby Show [sorry], A Different World and Frank’s Place in the 1980s worked to eliminate stereotypic portrayals of blacks, but were still very much seen as black shows despite featuring white actors in side character roles.
Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist who for years has studied the effects of racism in the black community, states that while black sitcoms became more common, the sharp image of segregation was still fostered. Furthermore, he says:
It is also telling that white Americans do not find all-black dramas appealing, even though the networks have tried to launch a number of such dramas over the years. White audiences apparently are comfortable seeing blacks in all-black sitcoms but not in all-black dramas, which depict the serious and human dimensions of the black experience, and do not reinforce common stereotypes.
Networks all but lost abandoned black sitcoms in the ’90s with the rise of TV shows like Friends and Seinfeld, and the struggle for racial equality on television continues to be an uphill battle. Most recently, the TV show Black-ish has been able to break through racial barriers, garnering number Emmy and SAG nominations. In 2018, it received Golden Globe nominations for Best Television Series and Best Actor. Its lead actress, Tracee Ellis Ross won Best Actress.
According to research, black families make up a little more than 20 percent of regular TV viewers. And while blacks are represented more than other minorities like Latinos and Asians, US networks still have a long way to go when it comes to accurately portraying racial diversity in real-world settings.