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‘We also want to change those unwritten rules of culture’: Rashad Robinson

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers, Sibile Marcellus, and Jen Rogers to discuss his non-for-profit, the strides it is making to make changes in racial inequality, and its recent initiative to take on racial issues in Hollywood.

Video Transcript

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Welcome back to "2020-- A Time For Change." I'm Sibile Marcellus. The civil rights organization Color of Change is working to hold Hollywood accountable for reinforcing dangerous stereotypes of Black people in movies and in TV. The organization is also working to support Black talent and careers through the push for an end to the silencing of Black voices and the derailment of careers.

Joining us now is Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. Rashad, how are you planning to change the rules, the way the game is played in Hollywood?

RASHAD ROBINSON: Well, you know, after the murder of George Floyd, so many Hollywood studios, agencies, production companies were saying "Black lives matter." They were speaking up. But for years, Color of Change has actually had real visibility and an office and work in Hollywood, where we have been working behind the scenes and pushing and having a series of demands.

And so what we wanted to do was connect these companies with the sort of message of Black Lives Matter with an opportunity and a road map to actually make Black lives matter through their content and their work. A simple example is that for the last 20 years in this country, violent crime has basically steadily went down. But according to Pew Research and other research firms, Americans believe violent crime is going up.

So we have this gap between perception and reality that, according to a lot of research, shows us-- is really driven by the content people see on TV, through television shows like "Law and Order" and "CSI" and other shows like that. And so we produced a crime procedural report on these TV shows with the USC Norman Lear School in January and have tried to socialize that.

And after George Floyd's murder, we've actually been able to build more power to go inside of writers rooms, to go inside of studios, to work with them on actually making sure their content doesn't normalize injustice. But working with Michael B. Jordan and many others in Hollywood, we have put together a road map at ChangeHollywood.org for those in the industry to be able to put real muscle, real policy change behind their statements of support.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And Rashad, you mentioned cop shows. Can you give us one or two more examples of instances where Color of Change stepped in and then media executives made a change to a TV show or a movie?

RASHAD ROBINSON: So, I mean, there's a lot of examples. Some of that we can't talk about publicly. But just in the last several months, we worked and got the TV show "Cops" canceled. In fact, back in 2013, we got "Cops" canceled from Fox. And at that time, when we were having conversations about it in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, when there was so much activism around-- in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement-- around sort of media images and media representation, the folks at Fox said to us, well, you know, we could diversify the images of this show.

And I instantly said, you know, if you're looking to put more white people on "Cops" and you think that that's going to be sort of helpful, you picked the wrong racial justice organization, because what I know is that they would actually only put poor white folks on and go into communities that were already targeted and exploited. I said, you know, if you want to do TV show "Cops" on Wall Street or maybe Capitol Hill, where crime happens at a structural level that really hurts us in a deep way, by all means, go ahead. And maybe we might support that.

But the part of that sort of work-- we've also got "Live PD" canceled recently off of A&E. You know, those are some of the shows. But we've actually-- more than getting shows canceled, what I actually really appreciate is the work to go inside the writers room. So a show like "Seven Seconds," which Regina King won an Emmy for on Netflix-- we were inside the writers room from sort of day one.

Veena Sud, the creator, brought us in. And we worked with her and the folks on bringing in real people who had faced these issues. We brought Marilyn Mosby, the district attorney from Baltimore who had prosecuted the police, to talk with the writers about what does it mean for a Black woman DA to prosecute police? What might some of the pushback look like? So when they constructed the character, they had real stories.

We brought parents who had lost their kids to police violence, because part of the show sort of had those themes. To get real images around that, we brought real tapes of bail hearings. So we didn't get Hollywood's version of all of these cases, when we know 90% of cases don't go to trial.

Part of the challenge that we end up having is if medical shows, for instance, put out misinformation about HIV and AIDS or cancer, we would call that dangerous. But what we have is a cottage industry of television shows that consistently put out images around and stories and narratives about the justice system that lead us to all sorts of ideas about policing and justice that are deeply dangerous.

And part of the work that we've got to do from 21st century civil rights is recognize that while we want to change the written rules of policy, we also have to change those unwritten rules of culture, which play such a critical role in how people get to live in our society.

- So, Rashad, while you've been talking, we've been showing some clips from your website, which I encourage everybody to watch, because it really shows you how every show that we have all been watching or growing up on has been part of this. And to that point, look, I don't even watch live TV anymore. Right? A lot of this is just in reruns. Like go stream, and go to Netflix.

How concerned-- I know you're working on the future, but this is going to be around forever. Are you also trying to figure out how to get things off the air or make changes on things that have been done already?

RASHAD ROBINSON: Well, you know, there's a mix of, like, maybe getting things of the air. It's also a mix of the networks placing things in context, putting explainers for things, helping people make sense of things. And so we're not trying to erase every bit of the past. But we are trying to make a real clarity about how decisions were made about what type of content was put on air.

You know, I've been doing this work for a very long time. I spent six years of my career-- earlier career-- at GLAAD. And part of that was at the head of programs from 2005 to 2011. What you could put on air around LGBT people and the images changed drastically during my time of leadership at GLAAD in pushing for images.

And some of those content that we saw then would be considered deeply embarrassing to all of us. And some of the content that we thought, like "Glee," at the time, of having a gay high schooler, and we knew we had to go out and fight and defend it, seems crazy right now, because you would never think of a high school show coming on air that didn't have a gay high school teenager.

I know Hollywood can make changes when they believe in the sort of humanity and dignity of the people they are representing. And part of the problem is that while we've made great strides with diversity on air, the writers rooms on these shows are largely White.

And so one quick thing about those crime shows that I find both funny and sad is that they have way more Black judges than ever existed in the world. If you, like, watch those shows, the judge is always Black. It's kind of funny and kind of sad, because you would want a world where we had more Black judges, because it would say something about education and justice and so much more.

But the quick point about that is, is that if you have an all White writer's room that is sending sort of the sort of words of justice through a symbolic Black character that has no backstory, oftentimes that elderly, stately Black woman that has no backstory. What would it be like for a Black woman who is 65 to actually be a judge? What must she think about the justice system?

All of those things have to be part of telling nuanced, diverse storytelling that can be entertaining and rich and doesn't exploit and target and further put our communities in harm's way.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Rashad, well, we'll definitely have to bring you back on to discuss more about your progress for the Change Hollywood initiative. Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, thanks so much.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Thanks for having me.