The stunning cancellation of the hit television series Roseanne, after the show’s star, Roseanne Barr, posted a racist tweet, is a reflection of America’s evolution on the issue of race.
The tweet concerned former Obama special adviser Valerie Jarrett — an African American woman who hails from one of America’s most prominent black families. Jarrett’s father was a pathologist and geneticist, while her mother is an early childhood education expert. In the eyes of Roseanne Barr, however, Jarrett’s parents were much less than that.
“Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” Barr tweeted in response to a comment about Jarrett.
The internet exploded in response to Barr’s racist and Islamophobic comment, and Barr apologized for her Twitter rant.
I apologize to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me-my joke was in bad taste.
— Roseanne Barr (@therealroseanne) May 29, 2018
However, the damage was already done. But I would argue that Barr’s racist tweet was just the straw that broke the camel’s back for her show’s cancellation.
The true reason for ABC’s decisive response to her public racism was put in place years ago, when black women with power infiltrated the system.
One of those black women, Wanda Sykes, was a producer of the Roseanne show. She announced online shortly after Barr’s racist tweet that she would not return to the show.
I will not be returning to @RoseanneOnABC.
— Wanda Sykes (@iamwandasykes) May 29, 2018
Another of those black women, Shonda Rhimes, is the showrunner for hits such as Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, both of which feature strong black female leads.
But the African American woman whose true power reared its head in the cancellation of Barr’s show is a name you may not have heard before — Channing Dungey.
Formerly ABC’s executive vice president for drama development, movies, and miniseries, it was Dungey who worked behind the scenes to put Rhimes and her shows in position to succeed on the network. She did the same for shows such as Quantico. That success made Dungey a prime candidate to replace Paul Lee as president of the ABC Entertainment Group in February 2016.
As the first black president of a major American television network, Dungey is imbued with incredible power. So much so that she green-lit Roseanne, despite the actor’s recent history of racial insensitivity. But with great power comes great responsibility, and Dungey acted responsibly. And, given the content of the tweet, the irony of a black woman firing Barr is just too delicious to ignore.
“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” Dungey’s statement said. And with that, Barr’s latest run on ABC was history. Thank God.
But this was more than a statement on behalf of a television network. This was a statement on the evolution of America’s relationship with race, as told through the story of the Walt Disney Co.
Founded in the 1920s by a man whose views on race were a reflection of America’s segregationist ideals, the Disney company has evolved. Where blacks were once forced to boycott just to gain nominal employment at a Disney amusement park in the 1960s, Disney now employs a black woman as president of ABC.
And Dungey’s climb is about merit, about grit, and about success. Because Dungey was able to succeed within a corporate structure that was previously dominated by white men, she was in a position to be part of a team that decided that high ratings were not worth racism, that viewers were not worth Islamophobic vitriol, and that human dignity was something to be respected.
To be sure, there will be backlash, because Barr, an ardent supporter of President Trump, is representative of something bigger than a single racist tweet. She is representative of a segment of America that wants to return to a time gone by, when racism was an accepted practice that had been woven into the fabric of our country.
The cancellation of Barr’s show illustrates that we are no longer in that time. But it also portrays another fact that can’t be ignored.
If we are to challenge racism in a political and social atmosphere that is rife with racial, ethnic, and religious vitriol coming straight from the White House, it will take more than the reactionary tactic of “sensitivity training” that is put in place after the fact.
No, challenging racism in times like these requires fundamental change at the structural level. It requires infiltrating racist structures and altering the outcomes they produce.
Challenging racism means putting committed people in place before the fact, and empowering them to make decisions based on the principle that we all deserve to be treated with basic human dignity.
Because while canceling a show might cost a network millions, ignoring our common humanity could cost it so much more.