LAST week, as the King verdict and the riots in Los Angeles upstaged the last episode of "The Cosby Show," two familiar, but very different images of black Americans dominated our TV screens. With an almost indecent haste, the jovial faces of the Huxtable family faded into the angry, violent world of the inner city. As ironic as the contrast seemed, it did, in one stark moment, encapsulate the recent history of black media representation.
Pictures of a frustrated black underclass are not new. For many years these images, along with other clownish and stereotypical portrayals, were the only pictures of African-Americans that made it onto our TV screens. Bill Cosby's great success was to add a second dimension to this limited vision of black life: the upscale, successful black professional. Before, we just had variations of Willie Horton. Now we have Horton and Cliff Huxtable. How does white America reconcile this paradox?
One answer lies in the verdict in the Rodney King trial, when a suburban jury from a segregated enclave of Los Angeles (where black people are encountered more on television than in the streets), cast their vote for the aggressors rather than the victim. They were persuaded by defense attorneys to see Mr. King as a fearsome and threatening outsider (Willie Horton) rather than a dignified human being with whom they could sympathize (Cliff Huxtable). The stories our popular culture tells us, after all, giv e only these two options, denying the complex and diverse reality of ordinary black Americans. In this duality the human experience of most black Americans is invisible. As King said himself, reacting to the jury's characterization of him, "I'm not like they're making me out to be."
Another answer lies in the shocked reaction of most Americans to an apparently racist verdict, as well as to the pent-up fury and frustration of a black community denied other avenues of expression. Why the surprise? Any analysis of the justice system will reveal consistent disparities, at every stage, between the treatment of black and white offenders. The criminal justice system is increasingly used as America's way of keeping the lid on problems of the neglected inner city. The crisis is kept out of t he way by policing problems rather than solving them: Hence we have created a society where more black men go to prison than to college.
The surprise is not a reaction to reality, but to the optimistic fantasies sold to us by TV's more benign black images. The admission of black characters to TV's affluent world gives credence to the idea that racism is no longer a barrier to upward social mobility. Most white people are extremely receptive to such a message. It allows them to feel good about themselves and about the society they are part of. The Cosby/Huxtable persona tells people that there really is room in the United States for minori ties to get ahead, without affirmative action, anti-poverty, education, housing, and employment programs.
TELEVISION, despite the liberal intentions of many who write its stories, has pushed our culture backward. White people are not prepared to deal with the problem of racial inequality because they can no longer see that there is a problem. TV, through the expanded portrayal of affluent blacks who have made it into its upscale world, indulges its white audience so that their response to racial inequality becomes a guilt-free, self-righteous inactivity. It is an ideological conjuring trick that plays neatly
into the irresistible recipe of "don't worry, be happy." This complacency was the basis of the shocked reaction of most Americans. As one person put it on ABC News last week, "Personally, I was more under the impression that racism was on the way down, but it seems it's climbed back up to the top."
As we look to the future, how will the Los Angeles riots be understood? Will television leave us with the dramatic images of lootings and the beatings of innocent whites? As Rodney King, the victim, fades from view, will Willie Horton, the sub-human evil murderer, rampaging through the streets, replace him as the face that epitomizes the meaning of the riots?
Or will our media rise to the challenge and offer America a dose of hard reality and hard analysis, dealing with the difficult issues of wealth and poverty, race and class, opportunity denied, and the cruel myth of the American Dream? Will they finally give us a view of the diverse humanity of black America? With a media system based upon easy and comforting entertainment, this will require courage and commitment from network executives, our cultural commissars - qualities conspicuously absent thus far.