Over at Deadline, Ray Richmond puts the five nominations for non-white actors out of 94 acting nominations handed out by the Emmys this year in historical context:
One of the dirty little secrets that haunts the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is its woeful (some might even say shameful) track record in honoring African-American actors and actresses with Emmy Awards. Consider that were Giancarlo Esposito of AMC’s Breaking Bad to win this year for supporting actor in a drama series, or the mixed-race Maya Rudolph to take the comedy guest actress prize for NBC’s Saturday Night Live, they would become the first black performers to win in their respective categories ever. Similarly, if Don Cheadle triumphs in the lead actor in a comedy race for his work in the Showtime half-hour House of Lies, he’d become only the second African-American in history to win in that category.
In fact, the four lead comedy actor/actress and supporting comedy actor/actress races have found African-American performers winning Emmys a grand total of four times–once in each category. Combining the victories for black actors and actresses in all 16 performing categories throughout the 63-year history of the Primetime Emmys results in 35, or roughly 5% of the total number of statuettes handed out.
Awards may not change everything. They’re not an iron-clad guarantee of future success—in fact, they can lock people in to the kind of roles that made them successful in the first place. And an acting Emmy may not automatically open the doors for an actor who wants to produce, or write, or direct. But they are a credential none the less, a testament to a general consensus on the quality of someone’s career, and it may help when it comes to getting in to read for desirable parts and to negotiating lucrative contracts. The pool of non-white actors who get regular work in television is already small enough. If those actors are ending up with a smaller portion of valuable credentials than their white counterparts, that means they’re losing out on leverage, and the chance to make what they will of it.