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Oscars and Grammys Racism : Perception or Reality?

Estimated Reading Time : 5 minutes 17 seconds

It is understandable, with the ugly history of discrimination against them, that Black artists would feel awards shows disregard them solely because of their race…but is that perception accurate?

On Sunday February 9th, 2017, Adele won the Grammy for Best Album over Beyonce, and ever since there have been cries of racism in the media against the Recording Academy. The next morning both the New York Times and the Washington Post had articles decrying the award's racism and making claims of #GrammysSoWhite.  

The New York Times opined, "The Grammys’ race problem is so pernicious that some white winners have chosen contrition over exuberance". 

The Washington Post wrote of the Grammys dispute, "Somehow, lots of listeners are fine with shrugging this off. Some balk at taking a nice Sunday evening television show and making it about race. (Counterpoint: It would be irresponsible not to.)" 

This Grammy controversy, combined with the #OscarsSoWhite uproar last year over the absence of Black actors nominated for Oscars, certainly gives the impression that both the music and film industries have serious racial issues. But do the Grammys and Oscars actually have a "pernicious" race problem? A closer look at the relationship between the Grammys, Oscars and race, is warranted to find out whether these charges are factual and substantial, or emotional and scurrilous.

A good place to start the investigation is to see if Black artists are under-represented in awards in relation to their population percentage. According to the U.S. Census, African-Americans make up 12.6% of the U.S. population. A review of the amount of Grammy and Oscar nominations and wins for Black artists over the last thirty years (1988 – 2017) will indicate whether they are under-represented or not. 

The four most prestigious categories for the Grammys are Best Album, Record of the year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. Over the last thirty years in the Best Album category, 37% (56) of nominees were Black artists and they won 23% of the awards. 

In the Record of the Year category, Black artists scored 36% (54) of the nominations and won 20% (6) of the awards. 

In the Song of the Year category, Black artists have 28% (42) of the nominations and prevailed for 23% (7) of the awards. 

And the in the Best New Artist category, there have been Black nominees 32.6% (49) of the time, who triumphed for 40% (12) of the Best New Artist awards. 

It is obvious upon review of the data that over the last 30 years Black artists are, in fact, substantially over-represented at the Grammys in relation to their percentage of the U.S. population.

In regards to this years supposed racial controversy, Beyonce has won a total of 22 Grammys (one in the big four categories) throughout her stellar career, which is 8th most all-time. Of the top four popular music Grammy winners in history, three are Black artists, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and Beyonce, with Alyson Krause being the only White artist on that list. It seems to me, that if the Grammys have a “pernicious” race problem, they sure have a funny way of showing it. 

The statistics regarding the Academy Awards for Black artists over the last 30 years (1988 – 2017) are quite illuminating as well. In the Best Actor category, Black actors have received 10.6%(16) of the nominations and won 10% (3) of the awards.

The Best Supporting Actor award has had 8% (12) of its nominees be Black actors and they have taken home the golden statue 10% (3) of the time.

Black actresses have been nominated for 9.3% (14) of the Best Supporting Actress awards and have won 16.6% (5) of the time.

Lastly, the Best Actress category has had Black nominees 4% (6) of the time and only Halle Berry has won the award, which amounts to 3.3% of the awards.

At first glance it would seem that, unlike the Grammys, the Oscars definitely have a race problem as in all but one category, Best Supporting Actress wins (16.6%), do Black artists equal or surpass their U.S. population percentage. But looking more deeply at the numbers reveals that this alleged race issue is more illusion than reality.

If you expand the parameters of the debate beyond the borders of the U.S., and I think it is fair to do so since Hollywood draws the overwhelming majority of their acting talent from the U.S, U.K., Canada, Ireland and Australia, also known as the Anglosphere - all the major countries that speak English as their first language, then the supposed inequality among nominations and wins for Black actors all but disappears.  If you combine the populations of the Anglosphere nations, their Black citizens make up 9% of that general population.

According to the 9% Black population percentage in the Anglosphere, Black actors are over-represented in Best Actor nominations (10.6%) and wins (10%), Best Supporting Actress nominations (9.3%) and wins (16.6%), and in wins for Best Supporting Actor (10%). It does still show slight under-representation in the Best Supporting Actor nominations (8%) and massive under-representation in the Best Actress category in both wins (3.3%) and nominations (4%).

In addition, if the Black actors nominated this year win, then the data is even more compelling against the Oscars alleged race problem. If Denzel Washington wins Best Actor, and as expected, Marshehala Ali wins Best Supporting Actor, then the Black actor win rate over the last thirty years in those two categories becomes 13.3%, which is not only higher than the Black population percentage of the Anglosphere (9%), but also of the U.S. (12.6%). If the heavy favorite Viola Davis wins Best Supporting Actress, the win rate for Black actresses in that category will swell to 20%, more than double the Anglosphere’s Black population percentage (9%) and considerably more than the U.S. percentage (12.6%). If Ruth Negga wins Best Actress, which would be a huge upset, then the win rate for Black Actresses in that category would grow to a still lackluster 6.6%.

The #OscarsSoWhite argument also makes claims of racial inequality against Black artists in casting, but those charges ring just as hollow when you look at the data. According to the Screen Actors Guild, Black actors make up 12% of their members, just below the African-American population percentage (12.6%). A study by the Annenberg Center shows that from 2007 to 2013 (the last year of the study) Black actors were cast in films at a rate of 12.6%, identical to their U.S. population rate. A Screen Actors Guild study from 2008 (most recent year available), reports that Black actors are cast in 14.8% of all film and television roles, including 13.2% of lead roles and 16% of supporting roles.

What these studies and the historical data prove is that Black artists are not under-represented at the Grammys and Oscars, or on film and tv, but in many cases over-represented in relation to their population percentage. So why does the perception of racism in these entertainment fields persist? I believe the biggest reason is a failure to put aside emotional arguments and to put the statistical data into the proper demographic context.

A case in point was when The Economist magazine did a study last year and found that Black actors were cast in 9% of “top roles” in films since 2000. The Economist used this evidence to conclude that Black actors are under-represented due to the 9% “top role” number being below the 12.6% U.S. population percentage of African-Americans. What The Economist failed to take into account was the broader population of the Anglosphere, which would put this 9% “top role” number right in line with the Black population percentage in major English speaking countries.

Another example of this sort of analytical blindness was on display this week in The Guardian where a writer was horrified to learn that Black artists had only won 10 Best Album Grammys since 1959. When you put the fact of “only” 10 Black artists winning Best Album over 58 years into demographic context, you discover that means that Black artists won 17.2% of the Best Album awards over that time, which is considerably more than their percentage of the population in the U.S.

Simply put, Black artists are thriving in show business. As an example, the Forbes 2014 list of the ten most powerful people in entertainment had Beyonce in the number one spot and African-Americans in seven of the top ten positions.

These knee-jerk cries of racism after awards snubs are emotionally-driven, and undermine more substantial claims of discrimination in regards to significant topics like police brutality, incarceration rates, economic opportunity and healthcare quality. These scurrilous accusations of award show prejudice make a mockery of the struggle against the scourge of racial inequality and injustice. There’s no accounting for taste, but to chalk up awards losses by Black artists to racial animus is a cheap way to avoid artistic responsibility and ignore demographic reality.

Previously published on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at RT.