Race to the Bottom

Political correctness has reared its head and its newest victim is a reality show. ABC cancelled its new, heavily promoted series “Welcome to the Neighborhood” before the first episode hit the airwaves.

OK, so it's hard to be upset about the loss of one reality show from the airwaves, especially one that doesn't seem to involve much sluttyness or plastic surgery. I already don’t care who is going to be America’s next soap star, cooking show host, or dysfunctional family. I can’t help but be amused, though, at the stir that this show in particular has caused. The premised of the show was that ABC was giving away a nice home in a ritzy Texas development, but that the contestants vying for the property had to win approval from their future neighbors. To add to everyone’s general amusement, ABC selected the usual assortment of colorful families, including a gay couple with an adopted son and a family of Wiccans.

Liberal groups were upset that while the series did show the growth of the disapproving neighbors, as they began to bond with the various families, it still presented people with intolerant views on television, at least in the first show. “Why should people of color and others ... be humiliated and degraded to teach white people not to be bigots?" said Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. "That's not good for race relations in America.” I guess that also assumes that only white people can be bigots. Conservative groups, meanwhile, also wanted to keep the show off of the airwaves for fear that it depicted conservative Christians as intolerant. I’m not sure that there’s any way around that second point – conservative Christians are, kind of by definition, intolerant of gays, for example. But the liberal objection mystifies me even more. Should ABC not be allowed to film actual people expressing their own intolerant views, even for the purpose of trying to change that view? I don’t see how refusing to admit that bigotry still exists is an effective remedy.

Even more disconcerting than the flimsy and shortsighted objections to the show (how did these activists see these advance screenings, anyhow, is this standard procedure?) on the part of activists, were their tactics to keep it from airing, which amounted to little more than blackmail. Several groups banded together and threatened to sue ABC under the Fair Housing Act. Let’s think about why this threat is nonsensical. First of all, whether or not ABC violated the law, why would these groups choose to sue only if the series aired? The show was already filmed and the house already awarded, so if the premise of the show was discriminatory, why should it matter whether or not the violation was shown on television? Second, and more substantially, these activists have a weak case, at best, under the actual law. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination (on the basis of race, sex, familial status, etc.) to be a factor during the course of selling or renting a dwelling. ABC, though, was neither selling nor renting the house, but giving it away. When did prizes and gifts fall under federal protection against discrimination? If that’s the case, then every charitable organization that runs a road race is going to have to do something about all of those cars that they keep awarding to the fastest runners (who tend to be Kenyan), and I’m going to have to give a whole lotta Christmas presents to Latinos this year, or I could be in big trouble too. Virgilio Elizondo was right – future Christmases will be Mestizo.

Stepping away from the details for a moment, this fear of controversy, and fear of making the public reassess its opinions on race isn’t healthy. Clinton tried to open a dialogue on race, but the expert panels tended to stick to expected complimentary platitudes and vaguely praise diversity. I also think that ABC deserves a little credit for trying to use what’s generally considered to be a base genre and use it positively. ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” may be cheesy, in its combination of Amish-like barn raising and over-the-top product placement, but it also helps families in need and encourages community involvement. By the same token, all accounts indicate that this current show changed the attitudes of the contestants involved, and challenged their use of stereotypes – perhaps it could have done the same for a wider audience. Then again, we might offend some audience members. Perhaps we should stick to a better use of the public airwaves: watching people eat worms.

On an administrative note, I will be vacationing in California for the rest of the week, so it's possible that GC&F may become a little quiet for a couple days.


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