Does 'The Walking Dead' have quota for number of black characters?

Chad L. Coleman joins The Walking Dead.
Chad L. Coleman joins The Walking Dead.
Published Dec. 5, 2012

After wading through Sunday's action-packed midseason finale for AMC's zombie adventure The Walking Dead — which saw major characters introduced, other major characters killed off or maimed and two of the show's most compelling guys forced to face an angry mob together — one thought nagged at the edge of my brain.

Does Walking Dead have a quota for the number of black characters who get to be on the show, especially if they're male?

The question surfaced after seeing Wire alum Chad L. Coleman introduced in Sunday's finale playing Tyreese, a character beloved by fans of the graphic novel that inspired the TV show.

Even as Coleman commanded the screen, leading a small band of survivors fleeing into the prison also occupied by hero sheriff Rick Grimes and his crew, another black character was killed. Oscar, a towering prison inmate who viewers were getting to know, was shot dead in a different sequence.

Ask Coleman about this odd turn (Oscar also was introduced as another black male character, T-Dog, was killed; he was the show's only black character for an entire season) and the actor laughs, knowingly.

"I have a very dear friend who I think is very much leading the online charge (to improve the show's handling of black characters)," Coleman said when I asked him about the issue during a conference call with journalists Monday. "I can't say anything but slow down, be easy; you're gonna be incredibly proud. We matter as much as anyone else and you're gonna see that played out on the show."

Those were powerful words coming from Coleman. We first talked about such issues in Los Angeles last year, so it's a subject I know he finds important.

The question matters because The Walking Dead is TV's most popular show this fall with younger viewers on broadcast and cable, drawing 15 million viewers over three showings Sunday. The series returns to finish its third season at 9 p.m. Feb. 10.

It is odd to see a show set in Georgia and around Atlanta with so few black people in it. According to the last census, Georgia is the state with the largest black population; 30% of residents are African-American. In Atlanta, 51% of the population is black people.

Even the zombies on the show seem to be largely played by white actors. (Forget about Hispanics; there haven't really been any since the first season.)

Still, producers have done an amazing job with Korean-American survivor Glenn (Steven Yeun), allowing him to grow from a typically geeky and asexual Asian-American sidekick to become a stand-up guy with a girlfriend.

I have written before about how the TV industry is wary of putting too many non-white characters on a show focused on a mostly white audience. It's why New York-set shows from NBC's Friends to HBO's Girls seem to unfold in a magic corner of Manhattan where few non-white people venture.

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One black writer I really respect, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, has said that pressuring TV writers to include characters of color can be folly. (Such characters often end up shallow caricatures, like the black women awkwardly added to Friends.) I'm not sure I buy that. If we didn't believe good shows could get better, why critique them at all?

There's hope: As the midseason finale ended, there were three black characters on the show, and Coleman assured that Tyreese — an ex-football player and humanitarian leading a group of survivors from Jacksonville — would stick around for five of the eight remaining episodes.

It may seem odd to spend this much time thinking about racial dynamics in a show based on a zombie apocalypse. But people of color just want to make sure we're not invisible. Even at the end of the world.