#OscarsSoWhite: What the Legal Profession Can Learn from this Very Public Debate

History was made at this year’s Tony Awards – Black actors won all four awards in the Acting in a Musical category. The diversity at the Tony’s was in stark contrast to this year’s Academy Awards. When the Academy announced the nominees, there was not a single Black actor nominated for an acting award. This was the second year in a row that there was a white out at the Oscars.
Hollywood’s Response
Jada Pinkett Smith announced that she would not attend the awards show and urged other Black actors to boycott as well. Smith reasoned that Black actors should stop showing up to and supporting the Oscars when the Oscars does not value Black actors. She explained that the value is shown by recognizing and celebrating the contributions that Black actors have made to the motion picture industry. Smith is a Black actress, director, producer, and musician who is married to megastar Will Smith. Will starred in the film Concussion.
Charlotte Rampling claimed that the campaign to boycott the Oscars because of allegations of a lack of diversity is racist to white people. She also argued that perhaps Black actors were not nominated because they were no good enough. Rampling is a 70 year old white British actress nominated for her role in 45 Years

Charlotte Rampling

Photo Credit: CBS News
Jimmy Kimmel did a cringe-worthy sketch on his late night show during which he and actor Tom Virtue discussed how to address the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards. Virtue pretended to be the Academy’s PR person in the sketch. Kimmel and Virtue resolved to photoshop photos of Black actors and community leaders onto the posters of Oscar nominated movies. For instance, The Big Short became The Big Shawty, complete with Kimmel and Virtue debating how to properly pronounce “shawty.” They continued with this rant couched in negative stereotypes of Black people by turning Room into Crib.
Hopefully, the problems with this sketch are obvious. At the risk of stating the obvious, Kimmel relied on offensive stereotypes to make jokes about a serious issue – diversity and recognition of the talent of Black actors in the Academy. The sketch was also a lazy attempt at comedy at the expense of Black people — something that resonates historically with Americans.
Kimmel should have contacted the people at Saturday Night Live to see how to thoughtfully parody the lack of diversity issue of the Oscar nominees.This story gets even more complicated as voting members of the Academy write open letters to The Hollywood Report. Their letters are in response to Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs’s public response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. The Academy members defended their voting, saying it is based on the quality of the acting and films, and saying that they do not and will not vote for actors on the basis of race. One letter, from a gay Latino member, even questioned whether Isaacs was accusing him of voting based on consciously or unconsciously held biases. He asks the question as though the notion of acting on the basis of unconscious bias is completely unheard of. I would ask him to rethink that statement and not be defensive about the allegation when it has been proven that people do in fact hold unconscious biases that affect decision-making, particularly as it relates to Black people. Further, it is not completely unheard of that Black people are intentionally discriminated against, even by other minorities. 
The Academy’s Response
The Academy took the criticism seriously and responded promptly with their diversity plan.  The Academy Board of Governors voted unanimously to approve the diversity plan. The Board’s goal is to double the number of women and minority Academy members by 2020. That’s pretty aggressive, but when we set out to create change, change happens. Some of the key points of the plan are:

  • Understanding that representation is important, the Board voted to identify and recruit qualified members who represent diversity.
  • Understanding the importance of bringing in new blood, and thus new perspectives, the Board reframed the lifetime voting rights to limit the tenure of voting rights members.
  • Understanding that underrepresented members need a seat at the decision-making table, the Board will add new members who are not Governors to its executive and board committees, where decisions about membership and governance occur.

The gravity of this plan cannot be taken lightly. The Academy is publicly committing itself to doing better and with this public declaration comes accountability. Black actors and others committed to diversity will be able to point to this plan and demand the Academy’s adherence to the plan. When that demand is not met, then people like Jada Pinkett Smith can return to, and implement, their plan to boycott. Because of this public and aggressive diversity plan, excuses and explanations will not be taken lightly.

Hollywood has been known for its lack of diversity and inclusion, but it has never been criticized so heavily, and that criticism has never led to direct action against entities like the Academy Awards. The legal profession faces similar issues with a lack of diversity and inclusion. Here are some key takeaways from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy:

  • Don’t be like Jimmy Kimmel. Diversity and inclusion are not issues to be taken lightly.  Lawyers, generally, are not comedians, so unless you have some of the SNLtalent in your camp, do not give a tongue-in-cheek response to serious issues.
  • Get aggressive. The Academy has set a goal to double the diversity of its diverse members in the next four years. Now, if there are only 4 voting diverse members out of, say, 1000, then this is actually quite pitiful. I am not saying that we need to set and fulfill quotas. We do, however, need to look at the demographics of our organizations and ask ourselves, “how can we do better?” Devise a plan to improve diversity and inclusion. Your organization likely has a strategic plan or a business plan aimed at improving profits. We can aggressively devise a plan to improve attraction, retention, and advancement of diverse professionals within our organizations.
  • Acknowledge that there is a problem that requires a solution. Some people believe that we live in a post-racial society and that minorities would do better if they seized the opportunities that are available to them. Other people believe minorities have less access to opportunity. Obviously, I am in the latter camp and would urge you to reevaluate the basis of your opinion if you are among those in the former camp. More than that, however, it bears emphasis that you cannot improve diversity and inclusion if you do not first acknowledge that it is a problem. If you think that more racial and ethnic minorities, women, sexual minorities, and differently-abled persons would be in partnership, in clerkships, in law firms, or at the U.S. Attorney’s Office if we just stop complaining and got to work, then you’re not actually ready to do the work. You would need to take a couple [dozen] steps back to reveal, acknowledge and confront your biases.

#OscarsSoWhite is not just about Hollywood or about some actors crying foul because they did not receive recognition for their talent. It is a reflection of the larger issues in our society and in our profession.