‘Roseanne’ controversy shines a light on race in Trump’s America

American Letter: Sitcom star’s tweets point to the lingering racism in US society

It was the entertainment comeback of the decade. In March this year, the hit TV sitcom Roseanne returned to screens across the United States as ABC relaunched the show after a 21-year hiatus.

Co-produced by Roseanne Barr, Roseanne tells the story of the Connors family, a regular working-class family from Illinois, as they navigate the world of work, everyday life and family.

The revival saw the sitcom rebooted for the Trump era. More than 18 million viewers tuned in to the first episode of the new series, which tackled the political divides of contemporary America head-on. Roseanne, like her off-screen namesake, was a Trump supporter; her sister Jackie a liberal Democrat. In the opening episode they haven’t spoken since election night.

The sitcom hit a nerve and proved a major hit for ABC. While the ratings slid after the opening episodes, the nine-programme series generated $45 million in advertising revenue according to estimates. In the highly-competitive media environment, Roseanne became the centre-point of the network’s entertainment offering.


Until it didn't. This week the Roseanne come-back came tumbling down, after the show's eponymous star sent a series of tweets including a racist comment about former Barack Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. "Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj," Barr tweeted late on Monday night.


The reaction was swift. The following day, the programme was axed. The comments were “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values”, said Channing Dungey, the first African-American president of ABC Entertainment, who had been centrally involved with commissioning the series.

While ABC has been widely applauded for cancelling the lucrative sitcom, the decision to commission the series in the first place had raised questions.

Roseanne Barr had already been a controversial figure, previously tweeting anti-Semitic messages and re-tweeting conspiracy theories beloved by the far-right such as allegations that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager ran a child sex ring from a pizza restaurant in Washington. (In addition to the Valarie Jarrett tweet, Barr's Twitter-storm targeted Chelsea Clinton, alleging she was married to the son of Hungarian billionaire George Soros, a Holocaust survivor who she claimed had turned in Jews to the Nazis).

Others complained that the rebooted sitcom idealised Trump supporters by portraying the Connors family as homely, honest Americans, thereby glossing over the bigotry and racism that motivated many to vote for Donald Trump.

Donald Trump jnr's retweets fuelled accusations that the Trump administration has normalised racism

Broader questions have been raised about Trump's role in legitimising the sentiments displayed in Roseanne Barr's tweet. The president famously phoned Barr to congratulate her after her first show, telling supporters at a rally in Ohio in March that the hit TV series was "about us".

Trump, who is experiencing a relatively strong run in the polls over his handling of the North Korea issue, was bombarded this week with constant re-runs on Cable TV of his previous racially-tinged statements, from his description of Mexicans as rapists, to his failure to condemn the white supremacists at Charlottesville.

The president addressed the controversy on Twitter on Wednesday but significantly did not condemn Barr or her remarks; instead he focused on ABC’s apology to Valerie Jarrett and complained that the network had not apologised to him over unspecified comments.

Fuelling accusations

His son Donald Trump jnr also retweeted some of Barr’s tweets on Monday, fuelling accusations that the Trump administration has normalised racism and given an open door to those who want to publicly air racist views.

The Roseanne cancellation has dominated the news cycle this week, opening-up questions about race relations in the US. The controversy erupted hours after Starbucks stores across the country shut their doors for the afternoon to give their staff anti-bias training. That followed a backlash over the arrest of two innocent African-American men in a Starbucks store in Philadelphia last month, which was caught on camera.

The Starbucks and Roseanne controversies both point to the lingering, latent racism that still exists in the United States half a century after the civil rights movement.

Valerie Jarrett, the focus of Roseanne Barr’s tweets, put it most succinctly, as she highlighted the everyday, casual racism that permeates American society.

“I’m fine. I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers coming to their defence,” she said. Calling for the Roseanne Barr controversy to become a “teaching moment”, she said she was more concerned with “every black parent I know who has a boy, who has to sit down and have a conversation, ‘the talk,’ as we call it ... those ordinary examples of racism that happen every single day.”

With the cancellation of the Roseanne show, black Americans will be hoping that awareness of everyday racism may have come a little step closer.