Ruben Navarrette: NBC's latest soap opera colors the reality of America as the land of opportunity

Ruben Navarrette: America deserves more credit than that. Its real talent has always been allowing people to achieve their dreams, regardless of the prejudice of others.

Ruben Navarrette column
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SAN DIEGO — NBC's best drama this season isn't on television. It's happening behind the scenes.

And it is centered around the firing of Gabrielle Union, an African American actress who was a judge on the hit reality show "America's Got Talent." She was recently shown the door after only one season.

I bet Union has a story to tell. And here's the headline: It ain't easy being the first, or the only.

Trust me, I know this story. I've lived it. Memory takes me back to a lunch I had in Washington about 20 years ago with a columnist, who was older and wiser than me. I was about to launch this column, and I was eager to get advice. Eventually, he got there. But, for the first course, what he served up was a smidgen of presumption. In between stabs at his Caesar salad, he said: "It must be difficult to feel as if you have to serve a constituency."

I knew what he meant, instantly. I was about to become one of only 10 syndicated columnists in the country who were Latino. Two decades later, there are half that many.


Ironically, the other columnist also had a "constituency" — not one based on race or ethnicity, but on political ideology. And it turned out, as demanding as my tribe was that I toe the party line —- something I've never been very good at, I'm afraid — his constituents were even more insistent that he agree with them. To his credit, he would often go his own way.

That's how it is with "success." From the outside, all some people see are the roses: the opportunity, the job, the paycheck, the seat at the table. It's on the inside that you find the thorns: the extra scrutiny, the lost promotions, the suspicion by colleagues that you'll get on a soapbox, the fear by your community that you're going to sell them out.

Part of you just wants to be a generic brand that sits on the shelf alongside all the other products. You can imagine someone saying: "I'm not a woman running for president. I'm a candidate for president who happens to be a woman."

Yet you can't shake the feeling that you have a responsibility to carry the banner and speak up for those who aren't in the room. You tell yourself that, if you don't say something, no one else will either, and nothing will ever change.

It's a lose-lose proposition. You're likely to get pummeled either way.

Union sure took a beating after she signed on to be a judge for the 14th season of "America's Got Talent."

Look, I don't know why Union was fired. And neither do you. The actress has her take. Simon Cowell — a fellow judge and the show's executive producer — saw things differently.

The acerbic Brit — whom viewers of Fox's "American Idol" loved to hate when he was a judge on that program — created the NBC show and owns it. So he controls the content. According to media reports, Cowell thought Union was "difficult." It appears that Union —who would often butt heads with Cowell and producers — felt as if she were experiencing a hostile work environment.


It also seems that — here's where it gets dicey — some of the hostility had to do with racial and gender issues. Union has said she was repeatedly told by people working on the show that her hair and wardrobe choices were "too black." Producers were also reportedly "annoyed" by Union's habit of asking contestants who dressed in drag for their preferred pronouns.

Fellow judge Howie Mandel may have also flirted with stereotype. According to Union, when discussing a black choir from South Africa, Mandel suggested, "Maybe they can sing something from 'The Lion King.'"

NBC has launched an investigation, and it is trying to figure out who said what — and what they meant by it.

Union was brave to come forward with these accusations. There may still be pushback or retaliation. Other jobs may not come as quickly as they once did. But doing the right thing is always the best course.

One of the most egregious stories involves a 10-year-old black rapper named Dylan Gilmer. When Union expressed support for the boy, producers poured cold water on the idea that someone like him could ever win the competition. They reportedly said the show "needed to pick an act America can get behind."

America deserves more credit than that. Its real talent has always been allowing people to achieve their dreams, regardless of the prejudice of others.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at

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