• 4   Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner:
    Broadcasting Race
Perhaps no greater vehicle of communication is contributing to a better understanding of the American Negro than television.
Editorial in the Negro newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier (1954)
If you give me a television station, we won’t need a revolution.
Amiri Baraka (1966)

Entertainment programs on television were another important—if sometimes ambivalent—venue for African American visual representation. In the mid-1960s, nationally broadcast dramas and situation comedies began to feature black actors. With these appearances, the networks reached out to black viewers, a new and increasingly lucrative demographic. The content of the shows, however, usually sidestepped the social realities of African American life in order to assuage the anxieties of white viewers and assure high enough ratings to attract profitable sponsors.

Nevertheless, television, more than any other mainstream visual entertainment, was a fertile ground for black representation: a handful of programs featured complex black characters or tackled the issue of racial prejudice; variety series—to a degree far greater than the interpersonal experiences of most Americans—regularly presented black and white performers interacting as equals; and, from the late 1960s onward, local programs gave voice to an array of topics of specific interest to the black community.

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The Urban Negro Market Potential, n.d.
The Urban Negro Market Potential, n.d.

The Urban Negro Market Potential, n.d.
6 x 10 1/2 in.
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005.101

After World War II, the African American middle class, though still a small portion of the black population as a whole, was slowly but steadily expanding. Businesses and corporations began to tap into—and study, as these surveys suggest—the buying power of African Americans. The process led to the increased presence of black characters and celebrities on television, a medium dependent on advertising and consumer outreach.