Imagine the situation, when two highly qualified workers with resembling educational background are applying for the same position. There is only a slight difference between them – color of their skin. This little peculiarity becomes a crucial thing, when an employer gives preference to the worker of a particular race, or, hires two of the applicants, but treats them in the different ways. For instance, the employee with the “proper” color of skin gets higher wage in comparison to the other employee. Such an unpleasant and humiliating phenomenon is called employment discrimination. Unfortunately, there are a lot of cases of such discrimination, on the basis of racism. For example, in 1996, the case like that took place in San Francisco. Brand Services subsidiary of Waste Management, Inc. fired an employee because of his color of skin. The employee sued the company and got 7.6 million dollars as compensation (Darity & Mason 63-90). It is even more disappointing that such an unfair treatment of people, whose skin is not white, has been highly advertised by the entertainment industry, particularly by Hollywood. Racial employment discrimination is remained in society because the US film industry has been the source of racism from the very beginning.
People of color do not have equal opportunities to get the job they apply for. Researchers claim that “discrimination reduced the probability of employment for black workers” (e. g., Shulman in 1987), (Baldwin & Johnson 302-316). The examples of it can be found in the US film industry policy. The policy was nothing more than an unfair treatment on the basis of racial discrimination. It prohibited Afro-American men and women to entertain white people. The situation remained valid in the beginning of the twentieth century. Twelve-minute film “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, based on the plot of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, launched the racial mechanism of Afro-American abuse and employment discrimination. This movie, which was the first picture, where one of the characters was Afro-American, was created in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter. Because of the prohibition, a white actor using a blackface make-up played the role of the black character. That is how the chain reaction of humiliating attitude was caused by this demeaning ethnic substitution. This practice had been put by white film producers until the development of sound in 1927. Ironically, because of the stereotype that music and rhythm were the inherited features, and all Afro-Americans had them, black actors started to appear in the so-called Hollywood musicals (Jefferson 135-147).
Hollywood has always been the source of spreading stereotypes about the people, whose skin is not white. Burciaga, when making his list of Chicano heroes for his picture, encountered with the stereotypic perception of Mexican people, which was caused by movies: “This list was at once humorous and revealing about how Latinos are sometimes perceived through stereotypes and media stars” (Burciaga 96). Humorous? The things appear to be not so funny if to dig deeper. Such mistaken perception through the images settled by the Hollywood movies can lead to serious problems. Employment discrimination is one of them, and it has drastically increased because of some negative stereotypes spread by the film industry and further adopted by the society. Jefferson calls this phenomenon “national sickness.” Racist mentality and prejudiced perceptions of ethnic minorities were strongly enrooted in people’s minds due to the white film makers. One of the most suitable examples to prove the statement is the case of the unfair treatment of Afro-Americans. Stereotypes related to black women and men were willingly adopted and widely used by numerous American directors. The fact had highly stimulated employment discrimination towards Afro-Americans, because most often they were shown in movies as people who lacked intellect. For instance, the women represented two popular abusive images which became stereotypes and prevented them from getting proper well-paid jobs.
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Imagine an aggressive arrogant obese woman, whose only possibility of job is becoming a servant. This is the first widespread stereotypic character, and many talented actresses, like Louise Beavers, Ethel Waters, and Hattie McDaniel, were exploited to develop the image. The second one is even more humiliating, owing to which it became a widespread idea that the only thing Afro-American women could perform really good is prostitution. The females were shown as “sensual and immoral sex-animals” (e. g., “Hallelujah” in 1929) (Jefferson 135-147). Black men encountered the same situation, and just as women, found themselves trapped in “stereotypes production industry”. According to Jefferson, the men were mostly engaged in the roles of idiots and coons, with the lack of intellect, who were unable to perform the sort of work, which demanded high qualification and professionalism. Even if Afro-American men were represented in the roles of doctors or lawyers, like in Roy Cohen movies, the characters there were frequently incompetent in the work they were performing. Judging from this, it is not strange that the white society considers people of different skin color to have much weaker intellectual abilities than the white people have, and, as a result, the stereotype has become one of the reasons, why white workers are more preferable than workers of other races.
The evidences that employment discrimination on the basis of racism was the widespread practice can be found, for instance, in the newspapers printed in the twentieth century. Table 1 shows that when looking for specialists, employers preferred white people, and if they needed servants, the situation was on the contrary. It becomes obvious that the stereotype spread by the Hollywood movies about poor intellectual abilities of Afro-Americans influenced employers a lot. “[U]p until the early 1960s, and particularly in the south, most blacks were systematically denied equal access to opportunities in many instances, individuals with adequate credentials or skills were not, legally, allowed to apply to certain positions in firms” (Darity & Manson 63-90). People of color were mostly perceived as servants. However, their sacrifice was not fruitless. As one of the Buruicaga’s students pointed out, “…all the people who died, scrubbed floors, wept … so that I could be here at Stanford” (Burciaga 97).
Table 1 Racial employment discrimination in Help-wanted Advertisements
January 3, 1960
Los Angeles Times
January 2, 1960
New York Times
January 3, 1960
January 3, 1960
Experienced, modern Southside, medical center. White. Salary open. Call Vincennes 6-3401
Companion. White. Lite hswk for single lady. Must drive. Local refers. CR 1-7704
Cook, housekeeper, negro preferred, experience essential, prominent family, permanent position, high salary, MA 7-5369
Nurse (practical) white, for small nursing home, Silver Spring area. Car nec. Good salary. EV 4-6161
Waitress – white. Good tips. 7611-15 Stoney Island RE 4-8837
Drivers (Truck) Colored, for trash routes; over 25 years of age’ paid vacation, tear-around work; must have excellent driving record. Apply Shayne Bros. 1601 W St., NE
Years have passed, since the obvious racist films exploited bad images of Afro-Americans. Some can say that the situation has changed, and characters in movies have become more complex and with dignity in them. However, even nowadays Hollywood tends to popularize negative stereotypes of ethnic minorities, which does not represents people as competent workers, but just as lazy bones, who live on the dole or criminals and drug addicts. Actor Laurence Fishburne says: “Stories that come out of the black American community are by and large films that deal with gangsterism, rap music, things of that nature” (Okwu). For instance, such characters are represented in the movies like “Menace II Society” and “Boyz N the Hood”.
According to observers, the negative stereotypic images will dominate in what follows, because studio executives make big many of them (Okwu). While thinking about profit, filmmakers do not care about the harm they bring to society, and people open their hearts and minds to the stereotypes conducted by Hollywood, and tend to form their point of view according to these stereotypes. A scene from the movie “Crash” is a good example to illustrate how white filmmakers are prejudiced against people of color and willingly use their own stereotypic thinking in their work. Afro-American director Cameron Thayer has to agree with white producer Fred to do another take of the episode that was done very professionally. As Fred explains, black actor Jamal is talking “a lot less black lately … like in this scene, he was supposed to say, “Don’t be talkin’ bout that” and he changed it to, “Don’t talk to me about that” (Crash). The producer cannot believe that Afro-Americans are able to speak without grammar mistakes. Though Cameron is trying to object to this, he yields to Fred’s persuasion in order not to lose his job. The example demonstrates how entertainment industry, especially filmmaking companies, has been stimulating racial discrimination for years.
Just as the image of idiots had negatively affected Afro-Americans in the twentieth century, modern popular images of color people as criminals exploited by Hollywood have a serious negative impact on employment opportunities for them. The scene from movie “Crash”, when Chicano locksmith is changing the lock for attorney Rick Cabot illustrates the fact perfectly. “I would like the locks changed again in the morning, [says the attorney’s wife]. And you might mention that we’d appreciate it if next time that didn’t send a gang member” (Crash). Judging from this, while during the twentieth century people of color were treated as stupid servants, nowadays society looks at them as if they all inherited some kind of a criminal gene. Because of that, the people have fewer chances to get a good job like the Chicano man in the movie. Nevertheless, he perfectly performed his work, due to his origin the locksmith was perceived not through his professional abilities, but trough the widespread stereotype.
Some scientists claim that employment discrimination on the basis of racism can be a positive phenomenon, which stimulates society’s development. For instance, Becker in his work “Economics of Discrimination” assumed the following: “white employers maximize a utility function that includes profits and tastes for discrimination against blacks” (Baldwin & Johnson 302-316). Later Baldwin and Johnson using Becker’s scientific data and statistics proved that in 1984 average wage offered to people of color was 82 percent of white men average wage. According to the scientists, the wage discrimination was the stimulation factor for Afro-Americans to invest in education with the reason to gain professional skills and become more competitive on the resource market (Baldwin & Johnson 302-316). Unfortunately, the presence of a good education and professional abilities does not provide people of color with the same job opportunities and equally fair treatment that white people have. One of my close friend’s personal experiences can serve as a good example. Maria, who is an Afro-American girl, since childhood had an intention of becoming a nurse. She studied and worked really hard in order to make her dream come true. She finally got a position in the pre-admission testing department in a hospital. Her co-worker was a white nurse, who also had just got the job. Once during their shift it appeared that a mistake was made, when two people with the same names came to the department to undergo medical tests.
The nurses mixed medical charts so the results of the tests could have also been mixed but the mistake was identified in time. To Maria’s big disappointment, she was fired, while her white colleague remained on her job. Maria decided to threaten the hospital authority to take the matter to court, but the only thing she achieved with her threatening is that the hospital fired her co-worker in order not to have problems with the employment discrimination case. Nevertheless, the mistake was really committed, it was made by the two nurses, and the first one who was fired appeared to be my friend because of the prejudiced attitude towards her. She got another job as a nurse after some time and still works and gets a positive feedback, while the white girl changed her occupation because, as she confessed once to Maria, she hated nursing. Judging from this, I do not see any reason for racial employment discrimination to have a positive effect on society.
To sum it up, racial employment discrimination is not empty words but a fact supported with evidences. It is very disappointing that the situation of the people, who had struggled for their lives, was so much worsened due to the filmmaking industry. Even nowadays people still accept on faith the stereotypes spread by Hollywood. Though Burciaga mentions that it is very hard to find proper definition for hero: “The selection process brought into question the very definition of a hero or heroine as a mythical, historical, symbolic, military, or popular cultural figure” (Burciaga 96), it can be claimed that heroes are all the people, who encountered the hardships of unfair treatment towards them and could not find the place to work because of the prejudiced perception, but still survived and gave the boost to further generations.