Editorial: Rising Above

The T. Howard Foundation’s Diversity Awards dinner, held this year on March 25, has been an annual highlight on the industry circuit since its creation more than 20 years ago. With buy-in from television companies big and small, the foundation’s goal of more diverse workforce is put on vivid display. Onetime T. Howard interns return as speakers, often with impressive career stories to tell. Honorees used to talking dollars and cents share genuine thoughts on the need to push toward the goal of a workforce representative of America’s quilt.

Yet despite the seriousness of purpose and many touching moments, it can also be a raucously funny and high-spirited affair. This year’s edition was emceed by TV One host Roland Martin, who is quick with a quip but also an expert judge of a room.

Martin judged the room expertly and knew when to pull back and let the emotion flow, as when honoree Michael Schwimmer, CEO of Fuse Media, spoke about his struggles after losing an eye as a child and “the universal need to feel valued.” Susan Scott, sister of late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, paid moving tribute to him, as did ESPN’s Sean Bratches. A hush fell over the room as Scott repeated one of her brother’s last bits of advice: “Live. Live. Live.”

Yet there were also laughs. One of the biggest, and most ironic, of the night came when Martin jabbed Deadline Hollywood’s co-editor-inchief, Nellie Andreeva. He cited her by name, suggesting she might not relish the night’s mission. It was the briefest of pokes, but an apt one given the dismayingly wrongheaded approach of an Andreeva article ricocheting around the Web.

Sizing up pilot season after the landmark success of shows such as Empire, Jane the Virgin, Black-ish and How to Get Away With Murder, Andreeva quotes several anonymous agents complaining that the pendulum has swung too far. Parts conceived for white actors were being forcibly cast with non-white actors, creating a “backlash” against the progress of the aforementioned hits. Rather than distancing herself from the objectionable worldviews of a few myopic 10-percenters with underemployed white clients, she seemed to swallow their logic whole. “Trying to duplicate those series’ success by mirroring the ethnicity of their leads is a dubious proposition—if that was the key, 2010’s Undercovers, a slick drama with two appealing black leads… should’ve been a hit,” Andreeva wrote. Whereupon the Twitterverse exploded with outrage.

Martin opted for wry wit instead of fulmination, and that deft touch kept a night of celebration on track. An African- American TV host presiding over a charity banquet dedicated to diversity in the TV business showed, with a sly riff lasting all of 15 seconds, how laughable it is to be “anti-diversity” in 2015. And then the show went on.