When Richards was initially announced as the host who would permanently replace Alex Trebek, who passed away in November 2020 after a battle with cancer, the news immediately raised eyebrows — even before the controversy over his behavior erupted.
That’s largely because Richards oversaw key aspects of the nine-month search for a permanent host after Trebek’s death. It’s also because the extensive search featured a series of guest hosts, with fan favorites including LeVar Burton, whose potential presence promised to diversify the longstanding game show.
When Richards himself was named, fans immediately grumbled about a rigged process, expressing disappointment only partially ameliorated by the announcement that former “Blossom” star Mayim Bialik would host a series of primetime “Jeopardy!” specials.
Yet many fans (myself included) wondered why Burton, former star of “Roots,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and beloved children’s show “Reading Rainbow” — the closest thing America has to a Black Mr. Rogers — was not named the permanent host, even after a very visible campaign of public support for him unfolded on social media.
The image of Burton as “Jeopardy!” host is a deliciously subversive one. A Black host of a game that appeals to intelligence, curiosity, a love of books and learning would visibly refute stereotypes about Blackness and intellect that that have remained stubbornly powerful in American society.
Beyond the specific details of one potential host’s behavior or another employee’s allegations of racism lies a bigger picture. What is sadder than the absurdity of these events is the way in which they reveal dimensions of how global corporations remain in a tragic feedback loop of prizing the familiar over the potentially new and innovative.
How many second chances do White men such as Richards receive in the world of business before a White woman like Bialik or a Black man such as Burton get one that doesn’t feel like it has an asterisk attached?
Of course, some will blame Richards’ departure as both host and now executive producer on the rising tide of “cancel culture” organized by a “woke mob” of the politically intolerant left who will come for all of us one day. The truth is more complicated.
The extent of the willingness to keep defending and promoting Richards until the bad publicity became too much should spark serious questions — of those to whom Richards reported, and of the rest of us as well.
The devil is really, always, in the details.
A great many corporations said all of the right things last year, some under great pressure and because it seemed good for business. Unsurprisingly, 2021 has seen, in many situations, a return to the status quo. The normalization of the kind of casual workplace inequity that allowed Mike Richards to become executive producer of the national treasure that is “Jeopardy!” is less an aberration than a reflection of what this status quo, when it goes uninterrogated, can often yield.
This hesitation to do the work, to mind the details underneath the sweeping statements of support, is too often exactly who we are as a nation, even if at times last year, we vehemently denied it. Burton would be the perfect rejoinder to anodyne diversity statements that go unmatched by deeds. Like the late Trebek did, Burton forges an uncanny, unspoken connection with diverse audiences who feel the sense of community his warmly charismatic presence radiates across the screen.
As a longtime lover of “Jeopardy!” I can’t help but hope this latest challenge also offers an opportunity — not for something as vast as collective redemption for supporters of racial justice, but for something more like ripples of hope that bubble up, over time, into streams of steady progress.
What better result from all of this drama than if Burton — one of the fan favorites during his guest stint –were to be named the permanent host. We could even make him a “Jeopardy!” answer to this clue: “The person who eventually gets the beloved position on television she/he should have had all along.”