#OscarsSoYoung: Where’s the Transparency?

cbisaacsCheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, claims the move to strip away the voting rights of the oldest members of the Academy is not discriminatory.

Boone Isaacs told The Hollywood Reporter:

“I just don’t understand it. That’s been a frustrating thing for me, this concept of, ‘We’re moving people out in order to move people in.’  That’s just not true … Our oldest new member is 90 or 91, so it’s not about age at all.”

In the civil rights context, Boone Isaacs comment is laughable. Inviting one individual who is 90 or 91 to join the Academy signifies nothing. And it is unlikely that Boone Isaacs would accept this lame explanation from another group that was charged with unfairly targeting women or minorities.

In any case, if what Boone Isaacs is saying is true, the Academy can easily resolve this matter. The Academy can disclose the number of members who are being stripped of their voting rights, along with their ages.  This request is not unreasonable. It is a matter of simple transparency. And I can assure her that this information will be disclosed if the Academy is actually sued for age discrimination.

Although Boone Isaacs professes confusion, age discrimination is not really hard to understand. It occurs when an institution adopts a policy or rule that disproportionately and adversely affects individuals who are over the age of 40.

The Academy earlier announced that 683 new members were invited into the Academy this year, of whom 46% are female and 41% are people of color. The Academy might actually have gotten kudos for this if it had stopped there. There is an obvious need for greater diversity in the Academy. A 2014 survey by the Los Angeles Times of the 6,028 Academy Award voters found that the population is 76 percent men with an average age of 63.  But, stupidly, the Academy did not stop there.

Age discrimination is not the solution to lack of racial or gender diversity. lt pits groups that  historically have suffered from irrational bias against each other. It is contrary to America’s founding principle of equal justice for all. It damages people, fostering deep resentment and anger, just like race and sex discrimination.

According to Boone Isaacs, it is the Academy’s goal to “increase our inclusion by 50 percent” by 2020. “Gender and race. It’s a big goal — that is for sure. But if you don’t set a big goal, what is the point?” she said.

The point, Ms. Boone Isaacs, is not achieving diversity by any means but achieving diversity in a positive manner without damaging the lives of loyal members, some near the end of their lives, and fracturing the organization itself.


academyA troubling aspect of age discrimination is that it is often perpetrated as a means to combat other forms of discrimination and a lack of “diversity.”

This is evident in the misguided policy adopted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to promote diversity in Oscar nominations by revoking the voting privileges of supposedly “inactive” Academy members. These “inactive” members are disproportionately older writers, directors and actors, many of whom were forced to retire years ago due to pervasive age discrimination in Hollywood.

Last year, African-American actor Jada Pinkett Smith called for a boycott of the Oscars because no black directors and actors (especially her husband, Will Smith) were nominated for the award.  The movement gained national momentum on Twitter with the hashtag OscarsSoWhite.

At the time, what was portrayed as a chronic lack of minority nominations was blamed on “old white men” in the Academy who supposedly dominate membership voting and fail to appreciate the work of talented black artists and movies.

Let’s concede for the sake of argument that the makeup of voting members is the reason for the lack of nominations for black actors and directors. What can the Academy do? The Academy could invite more  minority group members into the Academy and wait for the “old white men” to die off. That will happen inevitably and soon enough.  Instead, the Academy chose to invite 683 new mostly-minority group members into the Academy this year and to effectively boot out an indeterminate number of older mostly white male members.

A few months ago, Robert Bassing, a 91-year-old white male who has been a voting Academy member for five decades, received a letter from the Academy telling him that he may qualify for “emeritus status.” This means he will lose voting privileges. Once a working screenwriter for television and movies, Bassing’s last screenplay was in 1977.

Bassing has called the Academy’s thinly disguised effort to oust older members like him cruel and threatened to sue for age discrimination. He told a television reporter: “Don’t throw the members under the bus, or put the old people out to pasture … The whole thing offends me.”

Even Jada and Will may someday be old. How they will feel when they get their letter from the Academy?

The fact is that from the victim’s perspective the impact of age discrimination is no different than race or sex discrimination. It fosters a sense of deep betrayal and rage over the unfairness of being singled out for adverse treatment because of an innate characteristic over which one has no control. Moreover age discrimination, like race and sex discrimination, is perpetrated by the powerful over the powerless, like a hammer pounding a nail. 

Age discrimination cannot be justified as a means to increase diversity. It is immoral and wrong, just as race and sex discrimination are immoral and wrong. Age discrimination, like all discrimination, is based upon fear, false and harmful stereotypes and animus directed toward a discrete and often powerless group.

 Age discrimination is a short-cut for lazy and unimaginative leaders who don’t want to do the real work of creating a diverse organization.

What the Academy is doing is to older members like Bassing is a shocking act of betrayal. Bassing’s generation built the Academy into the international corporation that exists today. These members deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, even as the organization changes to meet the challenges of today’s diverse society.

I propose a new campaign, OscarsSoYoung, to demand that the Academy put an end to the purge of older members and its current policy of age discrimination.

Let’s use the hash tag, #OscarsSoYoung.

Let’s demand the Academy abide by its own “strict policy” prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, veteran status, sexual orientation or genetic information.