Mark Burnett, the extremely shrewd British creator of the American reality series The Apprentice, has a stock answer whenever anybody brings up the sticky question of race on his shows. That’s an American hang-up, he likes to say — I’m not concerned about political correctness. But as season 2 of The Apprentice, wound down and another African-American contestant — 30-year-old Kevin Allen — heard the words ”You’re fired,” the reason for Burnett’s code of silence became clearer. It’s not that Allen should have won, or that he missed out on such a big prize (somewhere in Chicago, we imagine first-season winner Bill Rancic is throwing pencils at his ceiling), or that his firing — which came on the series’ Dec. 9 episode after the final four contenders met with top executives at companies such as Unilever, Pepsi-Cola, and Bear Stearns — was racist. It’s that the show’s pretense that anybody who brings up race is just being oversensitive or paranoid has undone its last shred of credibility.
That became clear when Allen’s ”firing” played out. The personable, ambitious, spectacularly qualified African-American job candidate (he has a B.S. from Wharton and an M.B.A. from Emory and is pursuing a law degree at the University of Chicago) underwent a series of interviews, only to be told that his ”ambition,” his ”intensity,” and his ”unbelievable résumé” were actually drawbacks. His potential boss criticized him for being ”like, the most educated person I’ve ever seen.” (Isn’t that, like, a good thing?) Ultimately, he lost a chance at the finals because, get this, one of his white competitors had, many years earlier, been in…the Army.
In the real world — a world that includes things like staff diversity goals and minority recruitment programs — would Allen have been shown the door without a second thought? Would his education, his ambition, and, yes, even his race never even have been discussed as a potential asset to a largely white corporation after he left the room? By never addressing race head-on, and instead concocting a ludicrous way to turn Allen’s intelligence into a liability, the show paradoxically came off as so panicked about hiring a black guy that they had to invent a new standard — ”too smart” — to boot him off.
Just as we were asked to believe that the portrayal of season 1’s Omarosa and season 2’s Stacie J. as nutcases had nothing to do with playing into hair-trigger-sistah stereotypes, we’re now asked to take at face value the idea that Allen and last season’s African-American finalist, Kwame Jackson, were simply a little too smooth, intelligent, and driven to succeed. In other words, what The Apprentice is suggesting is that corporations run by white people don’t hire African Americans because the women are crazy and the men waste too darn much time getting educations.