|Will Don Draper's door ever open for blacks?|
Thus, when this blogger asserts that Don Draper, the lead character well-played by John Hamm, is racist, some have a hard time dealing with that observation. Others might point to Mad Men creator Matt Weiner's claim that his work is one of "science fiction," except that Weiner admits the atmosphere of Draper's office is overtly sexist and racist.
Thus, Don Draper himself is racist.
Take Mad Men: The Suitcase. In fact, you should because it's great television. The overall storyline is really about two people, Don Draper and Peggy Olson, who's work lives are a cover for their damaged selves. Draper has only his work. Peggy wants to get more recognition from her work. But Draper's also a boxing fan, and here's where his watered-down racism reveals itself.
Draper issues the standard predominantly white fears of the man we call Muhammed Ali, who was then called Cassius Clay. Draper complained that Ali always boasted. Draper wanted Liston to win because, essentially without saying it, Liston was the "good Negro," the person that wasn't threatening to Draper's World view, which has blacks in a certain place.
Draper has not faced a black character who was his 1960s equal: someone who was smart enough to establish their own firm to help companies market to blacks. There's nothing in Draper's makeup, and the Liston remarks confirm this, that indicates he could work with someone black who was his equal.
In reality, anyone who was a white male ad exec in the mid-1960s New York city could not get their by being a 21st Century non-racist. The fact is the Civil Rights Amendment was passed in 1964. It forbade discrimination in the workplace, in public schools, and in voting registration. Now, just because a law is passed does not mean businesses are automatically going to follow it immediately.
Unless Don Draper was out marching for civil rights, and hired black interns or had a black girlfriend, it's fantasy to think Draper wasn't racist. Indeed, it would be inaccurate to the period to present him as not having racist views, yet achieving that level of success.
Remember, Draper's firm has yet to hire an African American at any level above servant, and if they do, you can bet on this: that person's hire will be controversial and what that person has to do to remain at the firm - what they have to deal with on a daily basis - has to be a part of that story line if Mad Men is to be believable.
If such a hire happens it would have to be approved by Draper. If Draper does so, it would have to be only after he overcame a set of racial personal demons himself. It would not - or should not - happen in one episode. In short Don Draper would have to overcome his own racism.
Remember, it's the times. They were racist to an extreme by today's standards. The biggest problem is that many of fans of Mad Men weren't born at that time; this blogger was.
Which drives me to write this blog post. The simple fact is that even with that racism, the 1960s were a time of pioneering achievements by blacks in the ad World. As was pointed out in Racialicious:
It’s unlikely Mad Men will acknowledge executives for Pepsi-Cola—led by men including Edward F. Boyd—pioneered marketing to Black consumers in the 1940s and 1950s. Or the late Vince Cullers of Chicago launched the first Black advertising agency in 1956, while Luis Díaz Albertini founded Spanish Advertising and Marketing Services, the first Latino shop, in 1962. Hell, even Alex Trebek won’t recognize such trivia.
The other biggest problem is that television "critics" - either because of their own blindness to racism and institutional racism or because they want to pretend racism doesn't exist by not mentioning it - have written that Mad Men got the 1960s right. TV Critic Tom Shales committed this display of ignorance when he wrote "Details of the period, however, are nicely captured" when Mad Men was introduced in 2007.
He means details like the furniture; Shales left out the dirty issue of people and society in Mad Men. The simple fact, is that save for Draper quizzing a black waiter on cigarettes, which says more about Don's desire to get information from any source than how he feels about African Americans, Mad Men has not addressed the issue of American racism toward blacks. That was the defining issue of the 1960s.
Toward A Better Mad Men
At first, I must admit, I didn't pay attention to Mad Men because I thought it was going to be a fake-period-piece that didn't hire non-white actors for anything more than five lines at best. Now, I see it as a potentially useful show that can demonstrate not just the similarities but the differences between race in the 1960s and today.
The burden of proof that Don Draper's not racist is on those who would have to rewrite the history that was the 1960s. Those fans have to accept what President Lincoln said are "the hard facts that created America," and those that continue to shape it.