"‘The Mindy Project,’ ‘Alpha House,’ ‘Parks and Recreation’ And The Rise Of The Sitcom Race Hustler"
Last night’s episode of The Mindy Project featured Dr. Lahiri’s (Mindy Kaling) OB/GYN practice falling into disrepute after the office got a sterling review from a white supremacist mommy blog. It was a hugely contrived scenario for the show, and it mostly served as an opportunity for Mindy to talk about how non-racist she is, all evidence to the contrary. But one very funny thing happened in response to the review. Brendan (Mark Duplass) and Duncan (Jay Duplass), the irritating midwives who work upstairs from Lahiri and her fellow doctors, decided to use the review, and their own support of Tracy Whitfield (Larenz Tate), an up-and-coming black political candidate, to paint their rival practice as racist so they could gain a competitive advantage with New York’s liberal moms.
Brendan and Duncan set up a microphone, then a full-on stage outside of their office building. “Sister Tamra, you work at Shulman and Associates. Tell us how much it’s like 1950s Birmingham,” Brendan said gravely, inviting Lahiri’s nurse practitioner (Xosha Roquemore) onto the stage. And when Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) tried to tell the crowd how diverse his group of friends was, Brendan cut him off, saying “He counts his black friends, everybody, that says it all right there.”
If the schtick had ended there, it would have been a funny riff on the piety of white people acting holier-than-thou about racism when their own self-interest is really foremost in their minds. But it got better when Tracy Whitfield himself actually showed up at the rally. Initially, he was ready to score political points off Lahiri and Castellano, until Mindy seized on an idea by her colleague Dr. Peter Prentice (Adam Pally), and suggested that the practice start up a mobile clinic. “Our district could actually use that mobile medical unit. You know, part of fighting for justice is knowing when to put down your weapons and accept an olive branch,” Whitfield told Brendan and Duncan, recognizing a tangible victory when he saw one. “This is not an olive branch. This is a master’s whip they’re handing you!” Brendan protested, seeing his opportunity to gain a competitive advantage slipping away, and stepping even more dramatically over the line than his previous strides had taken him. “You’re starting to make me feel uncomfortable, and you’re kind of wasting my time,” Whitfield told him. “These people are barely racist!”
As a whole, “Mindy Lahiri Is Racist” wasn’t a terrific episode of television. You don’t have to be a crazy-bigoted mommy blogger to count as a racist–bias can manifest in all sorts of other minor ways. But the midwives’ role in the episode was in keeping with a welcome trend on television. We’re seeing a rise in characters who recognize that charges of racism are hugely consequential, without pulling the conservative move of suggesting that calling someone racist is a more offensive thing to do than actually saying or doing something racist.
This is an exceedingly tricky tightrope for pop culture–or any other medium–to navigate. It requires characters who can recognize that their racial or ethnic background can be an asset in certain, limited situations, without the show suggesting that being a person of color actually confers some net advantage that is unavailable to white people. It’s important for these shows to get at the ways white people are willing to contort themselves to avoid being seen as racist while being clear that those contortions don’t constitute actual equality, and that they’re not the result of some sinister wicked magic people of color employ to get ahead in the world. The shows also need to make clear that they’re siding, at least in part, with people of color who are willing to troll white characters for their cluelessness, rather than treating them like conservative fantasies of Evil Al Sharpton. And most of all, they need to steer towards a simple set of truths truth: that many of us are very frightened of being labeled racist, that this anxiety is a force for good but not a detailed manual to acting right, and that the spasms that can result have the potential to be very, very funny.
While in The Mindy Project, it was white midwives who were raising the prospect of racial bigotry, the second episode of Alpha House, Garry Trudeau’s Amazon Prime sitcom about a group of Republican Senators sharing a Capitol Hill townhouse, gave us black and Latino senators debating when to deploy the race as a political weapon.
One of the major subplots of the first season involves a Grand Jury and ethics committee investigation into Sen. Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson), who’s tight with private military contractors and has very little compunction about quaffing mini-bottles of champagne liquor lobbyists have dropped off in his office. It’s not clear whether or not he’s actually peddling influence at this point in the season, but he’s skittish about the probes, particularly when his new roommate, freshly-elected Senator Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos) notes that they’ve made Drudge.
“If anyone’s asking, it’s some completely bogus allegations about undue influence in an appropriations bill,” Bettencourt tries to reassure Guzman. “It’s a political lynching.” But Guzman reacts more strongly to Bettencourt’s tactics to diffusing the allegations than to the allegations themselves. “Wow, really, you’re leading with the race card? Are you sure that’s a good fit?” Andy asks. “You’re Mr. Accountability. A lynching sounds so early Al Sharpton. I mean, I’m sure people in Pennsylvania find a black Senator interesting, but you’ve gotta keep it interesting like Epcot Center, not interesting like Django. But hey, that’s just me. I’ve only used my Cuban-American minority status on special occasions. Like small business loans. But that’s just me, amigo!”
The conversation works on a number of levels. There’s the acknowledgement that there are only so many times public figures can effectively invoke race in self-defense, particularly when it’s a reach to suggest that race is actually what’s at issue in a given controversy. There’s Guzman’s canny identification of the way Bettencourt’s race works for him with his constituents, and the balance he has to keep up to preserve their self-satisfaction about having voted for him. And finally, there’s the punchline of Guzman–who, with a total lack of self-awareness, tells his roommates about his dreams, which involve being reelected president with 83 percent of the vote but losing the Latino electorate–denies playing the race card at the same moment that he’s reminding Bettencourt of his ethnicity.
But my favorite player of the race card, who lays down his hand the elan of a master poker play, and the glee of a born troll, is Parks And Recreation‘s Ken Hotate (Jonathan Joss, who has Spanish, Comanche, and White Mountain Apache ancestry), the leader of Pawnee’s Wamapoke tribe, who have suffered horribly at the hands of the town’s epically racist residents. It’s a legacy and a reserve of guilt that Ken enjoys trotting out in his negotiations with the Pawnee government, in which he also frequently plays on white people’s preconceptions about Native Americans. When he was pushing for Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) Harvest Festival, which was located on a Wamapoke burial ground, to include more information about the town’s Native American population, Ken’s go-to move was to threaten to hex the event. “There are two things I know about white people,” he declared. “They love Matchbox 20, and they are terrified of curses.” Ultimately, he lifts the theoretical curse that’s fallen on the festival, in a ritual that involves him speaking mumbo-jumbo because he knows his audience wants badly to be present at a solemn ceremony that bolsters their sense of themselves as culturally sensitive.
Later, Leslie and Ken teamed up to mess with Pawnee City Councilman Jeremy Jamm. First, Ken suggested that Jamm was overstepping himself in declaring white people in war bonnets racist. Then, as soon as Jamm donned one, Ken declared himself gravely offended. The joke was less that Ken was changing the standards for being anti-racist on Jamm than Jamm’s desperate attempts to pander to Ken. Ken is one of the cleverest creations of Parks And Recreation because the show manages to simultaneously acknowledge Pawnee’s horrific history of racial and gender-based violence, and to make us enjoy Ken’s puckish deployment of that history. Ken isn’t a victim or a hustler–his demands are reasonable. He just lives comfortably in the complexity of Pawnee’s racial history and the awkward efforts his white neighbors make to be well-intentioned.
Comedy’s carved out a much more nuanced portrait of the reality of race relations than many of the “conversations on race,” invoked by political leaders and commentators. There’s no single discussion, and no easy strategy, that can extricate us from our racial politics, racial history, and the social and financial economics of racial privilege. But rather than condemning advocates of racial equality as “race-baiters” and presenting white people as severely put-upon, or suggesting that the only solution to allegations of racial bias is self-mortification, comedy’s able to present a much more richly human and historically-conscious dynamic of racial discourse.
In The Mindy Project, the midwives are right that Mindy has less than admirable racial views, but she’s obnoxious in a different way than their allegations suggest. Alpha House‘s Robert Bettencourt would probably get himself in trouble by invoking race to try to blunt an ethics investigation, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no occasion on which race might be a useful political tool for him. And Ken Hotate is absolutely right about Pawnee’s genocidal history and anxious present, and Leslie is also correct to cut a reasonable deal with him. Our political conversations about race tend to dissolve into mutual recrimination that ends with everyone in the same place where they began. But in these sitcoms, when it comes to race and allegations of bias, everyone gets a chance to be right, and our view of the world is more sophisticated for it.