Considering Structure and Bias on Oscar Sunday


Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

I’m a fan of movies and the award shows that honor them. So I was upset – like much of the rest of the twitterverse  – that Selma was snubbed when the Oscar nominations were announced last month. Entertainment experts claimed that for Selma’s director, Ava DuVernay, being shut out of the Oscar nominations was almost inevitable. Each of the categories’ nominations are only made by members in the corresponding profession. Since directors nominate directors, it matters that the directing branch is 91% male and 90% white, and that Ava DuVernay is a black woman. The policy governing the nominations may not be intentionally discriminatory – it doesn’t have to be – the impact is that the same. This year will be the whitest Oscars in nearly twenty years.

The biases of the white male directors with the power to grant nominations probably added to the structural barrier that Ava DuVernay would have had to overcome with Selma, because she didn’t have the luxury of “coasting merely on the perception of prestige”   that is afforded to white male filmmakers in the race for an Oscar.

The combination of structural barriers and implicit biases that blocked Selma’s awards chances parallels our nation’s social inequities.

From housing to economic development to criminal justice, seemingly race-neutral public policies too often creates structures that lead to dramatically worse outcomes for people of color. In education, school funding is often based on housing and property taxes. This leads to rich suburbs having robust tax bases to fully-fund schools in their area, while communities that have been locked out of economic opportunity by decades of red-lining and disinvestment are left with underfunded schools. But the problem isn’t just about the financing structure. Bias also plays into educational outcomes, especially considering the research showing that Black and Latino students are disciplined more harshly than white students.

I’m looking forward to this Sunday’s Academy Awards for the show’s glitz and glamour; and I’m also hopeful that the Selma snubs can be a teachable moment that pushes all of us to think more about how the rules of the game get in the way of our ideals of diversity and inclusion.

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