There was no question that “Mad Men” would get around to the civil rights movement. From the start, racism was the carbon monoxide of the show: a poison that couldn’t always be detected over the pungent scent of cigarettes, sexism, anti-Semitism, alcoholism, homophobia and adultery, but that sooner or later was bound to turn noxious.
That promise was made in the opening scene of the premiere episode of Season 1. The first face on screen is a black one in profile, that of a waiter carrying a tray of cocktails across a bar crowded with white, mostly male customers. ...
It’s the show’s willingness to put its characters in the context of the times, and not whitewash the white men, that gives it an edge and keeps a drama that in its fifth season has gotten — let’s face it — a little old and soapy, interesting to watch. Particularly at this moment, when the case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed by an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, has become a heated cause, the 1960s look a lot like prologue.
Don and his colleagues are flip, self-centered and oblivious, no different from the many privileged Americans who stood on the sidelines and averted their eyes. They are the ones who ended up on the wrong side of history and whose testimony is usually left out of the textbooks, like the bourgeois Parisians who collaborated — faute de mieux — during the Nazi occupation, the South Africans who welcomed cheap labor under apartheid or the cadets who set fire to the clothes of the first female cadets admitted to the Citadel military college.
While watching Mad Men, Weiner affords us ample opportunity to congratulate ourselves on how much progress we’ve made. For example, most of the black characters in Mad Men have servile jobs. Today, of course, things are infinitely better. Black men are seldom seen in servile jobs (unless they are African immigrants or gay). In fact, black men aren’t seen in any jobs as much anymore: ten percent of black men were out of the work force in Don Draper’s 1960 versus 24 percent in booming 2000. Indeed, black men aren’t even seen at all as much anymore because a million are now locked away in prison. (The incarceration rate of black male high school dropouts was one percent in the Bad Old Days of Dwight Eisenhower’s last year in office versus 25 percent in Bill Clinton’s glorious finale.)
The kicker to the joke is that Mad Men, despite being set in New York, is filmed in LA, where Latinos have been imported in vast numbers to fill the servant jobs that today’s upper-middle class whites no longer trust blacks with. Yet Hispanics are even more invisible to the Hollywood elite today than blacks were then.