By Renee Graham
In an effort to spice things up on next season's edition of The Apprentice, Donald Trump is considering a team of black contestants competing against a group of white participants.
"Whether people like that idea or not, it is somewhat reflective of our very vicious world,'' Trump said in a report last week. "But needless to say, not everyone thinks it's a good idea.''
They're right — it's not a good idea. It's a great idea.
If you think seeing someone eat a spider or a bowlful of animal testicles on NBC's Fear Factor is terrifying, imagine watching teams segregated by race competing against each other week after week. Of course, the camera-savvy contestants would likely be on their best politically correct behavior, self-censoring any epithets or open bigotry toward the opposing team. Any racial fireworks — surely, the whole point behind such a concept — would be minimized.
Yet such a gimmick would be invaluable because it would prompt viewers to examine their own feelings about race and racial attitudes in the workplace.
Beginning with the unassuming premiere of MTV's The Real World in 1992, we're more than a decade into the modern age of reality TV. We now know all we need to about how much some people don't like their faces (Extreme Makeover), their kids (Brat Camp) or their relationships (Temptation Island). Once Mark Burnett and Survivor introduced a reality-show staple — voting off contestants — we found out that we don't much care for each other either, especially with prize money on the line. Still, The Apprentice daring to dig beneath our polished veneer of tolerance would be nothing short of revolutionary, must-see TV.
Which is exactly why it probably won't happen.
Already this year, we've watched one network flinch instead of broadcasting a controversial new show. ABC's Welcome to the Neighborhood planned to allow three white, conservative families in suburban Texas to choose their new neighbors from, among others, a gay couple with an adopted black child, Koreans, blacks, a family who identified themselves as pagans, and another family in which the mother worked as a stripper. Yet such was the sturm und drang from groups as diverse as the Family Research Council, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and the Fair Housing Alliance that the show was yanked before it ever aired.
In execution, did this promise to be tacky? Of course, but then that's the awkward nature of most reality TV, whether it's The Bachelor or Celebrity Fit Club. At the same time, though, it could have provided an engrossing socio-cultural view of how we deal in the 21st century with an issue that has vexed us since the Pilgrims landed in the 17th century.
For all the lip service given to conquering prejudice, racial and ethnic intolerance continue to undermine so much of what's supposed to make this country great. Yet so quick are we to cringe at the mention of racism, we tend to shut down even the possibility for thoughtful discussions, likely out of the fear that they might prove too painful and self-revealing.
Before it devolved into a half-hour's worth of alcohol-aided hot tub hook-ups between roommates, The Real World aspired to tackle more meaningful issues. Among the most notable was a high-decibel argument between Kevin, a black writer, and Julie, a white, aspiring dancer from Alabama, during the show's inaugural season in New York. As a backdrop to this debate was the not-guilty verdicts against the Los Angeles police officers videotaped beating motorist Rodney King, and the ensuing deadly riots. The Kevin-Julie dispute gave that season a gravity which has long since disappeared from the series.
That's because it dared to be about something and mirrored our own discomforts in dealing with people of different backgrounds. From the incendiary drama Crash to Oprah's snub at the Hermes store in Paris, it's been a compelling year for provocative discussions about race, and what better place to continue that conversation than on one of TV's most popular shows?
The Apprentice has some experience with this. During its first season, some viewers were divided over whether Central State University graduate Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth was vilified because she was an outspoken black woman. In dividing the Apprentice teams by race, there would finally be a reality show nervy enough to deal with one of the more difficult dilemmas of our own reality, and where the ultimate stakes would be far more important than just determining who gets to be the Donald's latest lackey.