As America got solemn last month about the Supreme Court's striking down the principle of "separate but equal" for public schools, otherwise-unoccupied minority advocates were busy with a campaign to institute that very principle for television ratings.
Months ago, Nielsen Media Research, purveyor of the ratings that drive advertising and programming decisions, announced it would be switching its data-collection system from paper diaries to more-automatic electronic gizmos called "Local People Meters."
The switch was intended to make its ratings more accurate. Viewers, it was found, didn't record their channel-surfing as faithfully in their diaries as electronic systems could.
But the switchover is being denounced as a white supremacist assault by an increasing number of black and Hispanic spokesfigures. There is an entire website called DontCountUsout.com/—registered to Mike McCurry, the former Clinton Administration press secretary.
The basic charge is that the new system will undercount black and Hispanic viewers, thus presumably depriving them (and the rest of us) of such enriching viewing as "Martin" and "The George Lopez Show."
The utter lack of evidence for the charge has not dampened this remote control version of We Shall Overcome. It has been joined by Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-NY (who helped delay the introduction of the system in New York City until June 3), The New York City Public Advocate, Hillary Clinton, Mike McCurry, Al D'Amato and the NAACP.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, demanded that the General Accounting Office study the undercount complaint.
Al Sharpton (gasp!) has weighed in to declare that "this could mean a lot of jobs in our community, and it can also mean that we have the 'whitenizing' of American television." [Sharpton Goes On Ratings Warpath, By Tom Topousis, NY Post, May 18, 2004]
Imagine a white person complaining about the "blackenizing" of American television—which, as I surf the channels these days, seems to be the better description of what's happening.
Beyond some unflattering speculation from a Congressional aide, I couldn't nail down the specifics of how a system designed to be easier and more accurate would undercount minority viewing habits.
Was Nielsen refusing to include black and Hispanic households in their new system? Deliberately deleting results from black and Hispanic viewers? It seems unlikely, though a group called the National Hispanic Media Coalition claims to have shown that the undercounts do happen, if not precisely how.
Check out their "study" of the problem and see if you're satisfied that they've made the case for Nielsen's racist bloodlust.
Some suspicious sources say it wasn't really minority groups pushing a Local People Meter delay at all, but News Corp., owner of the Fox Network.
Nielsen, for its part, says it's actually got slightly more than the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in the population for its samples.
The Local People Meter brouhaha says quite a bit about the mixed messages we get on race in America.
We are constantly lectured that "there is only one race, the human race," that America is a melting pot, and that you can't generalize about racial groups (except for whites, about whom it's OK to generalize that they're very bad/very boring/ both).
But what was the core of the complaint that blacks and Hispanics were being undercounted by a television ratings system if not racial generalizations?
Because if a black or Hispanic person is as likely to watch any given show as any white person, and vice versa, it wouldn't matter whether Nielsen was undercounting any group.
However, this is clearly not how members of racial minorities see themselves. They see themselves as members of groups who do, in fact, have tastes in common, and whose interests are best represented when they present as a group. Similarly with their complaints about the Census and about voting districts.
The undercount nonsense reveals deep contradictions on race in America. It should raise serious questions for those still clinging to the fantasy of a soon-to-come multiracial, multilingual, multicultural nirvana promised by immigration enthusiasts like National Review's John J. Miller.
Diversity is not strength. It is weakness. But don't expect the establishment media or anyone in Washington to explore this anytime soon.
As for those who do, well, they aren't counted.