Is Roseanne Barr's Firing a Sign of Persistent Racism or Racial Progress?

It's mostly a sign of progress, especially when paired with policy reforms that are helping African Americans.


ABC, Wikimedia

Is the firing of Roseanne Barr by ABC over an offensive tweet evidence of racism's persistence or a sign of racial progress?

The star was enjoying massive popularity with the reboot of her eponymous 1990s sitcom until she tweeted that Barack Obama's former adviser Valerie Jarrett was the offspring of "Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes." Her show, a ratings champ, was almost immediately canceled by ABC, and she was disowned by most of her costars and collaborators.

Writing in The New York Times, author Roxanne Gay, who is black and lesbian, argues that the new version of Roseanne shows how little America has progressed when it comes to race, class, and gender equity:

For once, a major network did the right thing. But before it did the right thing, it did the wrong thing. It is not new information that Roseanne Barr makes racist, Islamophobic and misogynistic statements and is happy to peddle all manner of dangerous conspiracy theories. ABC knew this when it greenlighted the "Roseanne" reboot. ABC knew this when it quickly renewed the reboot for a second season, buoyed, no doubt, by the show's strong ratings.

Gay gives no quarter to Barr's colleagues and costars, noting, "It was only when Ms. Barr became an immediate liability that everyone involved finally looked at her racism and dealt with it directly." Gay recounts a series of recent stories that show how blacks are often presumptively treated as criminals by white Americans and law enforcement. She acidly observes that Roseanne's tweet was published the same day that Starbucks was holding a nationwide day of diversity training after a racially charged incident at one of its outlets in Philadelphia.

Gay says public gestures toward racial justice by corporate America and Roseanne actress Sara Gilbert are simply "part of an elaborate and lucrative illusion" that papers over the daily indignities faced by African Americans. "ABC," she notes, "is the same network that shelved an episode of 'Blackish' because it addressed the N.F.L. anthem protests." Denunciations of racism and prejudice, in Gay's view, are always done cynically and only as a last resort.

It's a powerful argument. But is that all there is to say? Over at CNBC, John Harwood, who is white, takes a different view in a piece titled "In America's Racial Din, ABC's Decision on 'Roseanne' Reflects a Turn Toward Tolerance." Where Gay focuses on examples of racism, Harwood looks at unmistakable signs of progress:

Though halting and fitful, the path leads in only one direction over time….

Polling amassed by the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs showed that by 1972, 97 percent of whites agreed blacks should have equal job opportunities; by 1997, 95 percent said they would vote for a black presidential candidate; by 2011, 86 percent approved of interracial marriage….

Obama's election—not once, but twice—demonstrated those shifts.

Harwood doesn't scant the persistence of racism, from Donald Trump's equivocating after last year's white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to, well, Roseanne Barr's tweet. He also notes that America is becoming less white. Only 28 percent of baby boomers are nonwhite, he says, compared to 44 percent of Millennials, and that shift will limit racism. He quotes Martin Luther King Jr. on "the moral arc of the universe" bending "toward justice" before concluding that "it bends toward tolerance, too."

There are other positive developments to consider. Across a wide variety of measures, racist attitudes and hate crimes have dropped over the past several decades. School choice, which gives lower-income and minority parents and students access to better education, is growing. The drug war, which disproportionately incarcerates blacks and Latinos, is breaking down. The closely related issue of criminal justice reform is proceeding apace.

Just yesterday, reality TV star Kim Kardashian met with President Trump to discuss prison reform. Kardashian is of course married to black rapper Kanye West, and the interracial nature of their union is so completely unremarkable that it is rarely if ever discussed; that is its own sort of progress. Occupational licensing, which often screws over blacks, is under attack. Black households have seen median income grow by 25 percent since 1998, substantially more than the increase for whites.

There's no contradiction in celebrating progress toward a color-blind society while noting that racism still exists. Roseanne Barr's Twitter feed may have been filled with racist, Islamophobic, and misogynist statements prior to her triumphant return to network TV, but who would have been looking carefully at it then? Surely it matters more that she was fired as soon as she made a patently racist remark in public, and that many of the policies that have long harmed blacks as a group are being reformed.