Black men face uphill battle in American Idol semifinals

whiteguysLast year, in Season 12, much was made of the fact that a woman hadn’t won since Season 6, a six year gap. But a woman, Candice Glover, won, whether or not you think Idol was pushing for it, and she was the fifth such woman to do so (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, and Jordin Sparks were the others).

But another demographic which is highly represented in the semifinals is black men, and they haven’t had a win since Season 2, where Ruben Studdard took the prize. Indeed, the five men voted through on Thursday were Alex Preston, Sam Woolf, Ben Briley, Caleb Johnson, and Dexter Roberts, all of whom were white. C.J. Harris had a good rating on WhatNotToSing, but failed to make it in the vote (he was, however, advanced by the judges).

When I went back over the history of the show, I was startled to discover that white men enjoy a 21 point advantage over black men in the rate voted in. Not a 21% higher share—the rate of black semifinalist men who were voted in is 21 percentage points lower than the rate of white semifinalist men voted in.

Let’s first look at all contestants, by race. I have only included White, black, hispanic, and filipino contestants, as all other groups did not have enough members to draw a conclusion.

Number of Semifinalists Number of Finalists Finalist By Vote Rate by voting Rate by Voting+Wildcards
White 186 90 82 44% 48%
Black 106 43 35 33% 41%
Hispanic 29 12 11 38% 41%
Filipino 12 5 5 42% 42%

Whites enjoy an 11 point advantage in the voting overall over blacks, with less of an advantage over hispanics and practically no advantage over filipinos. Judges’ picks reduce the white/black advantage to 7 points.

However, let’s focus just on the men:

Number of Semifinalists Number of Finalists Finalist By Vote Rate by voting Rate by Voting+Wildcards
White Men 87 46 45 52% 53%
Black Men 45 17 14 31% 38%
Hispanic Men 17 8 7 41% 47%
Filipino Men 5 0 0 0% 0%

As you can see, only 17 of 45 black men have ever advanced, as opposed to more than half of white men. But this advantage virtually disappears when you look at the women:

Number of Semifinalists Number of Finalists Finalist By Vote Rate by voting Rate by Voting+Wildcards
White Women 99 44 37 37% 44%
Black Women 61 26 21 34% 43%
Hispanic Women 12 4 4 33% 33%
Filipino Women 7 5 5 71% 71%

The rates of white women getting through (either through voting alone or including wild cards) is virtually identical to that for black women.

I have much more to say about the racial divide in American music, particularly with reference to the upcoming in-depth look at American radio stations. Perhaps a majority of popular male singers are white (is that true?), and so singers of cover songs on a show like Idol are at a natural disadvantage. I don’t think that’s true (Michael Jackson? Lionel Richie? Sam Cooke?), though maybe it is.

But something here doesn’t seem right.

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  • Matthew Richards

    Interesting. This year, I thought the white men genuinely sang better than the black men in semifinals. But I think much of this is manufactured due to talented black men being cut in the pre-voting rounds: for example, Emmanuel was sent through to semis over Savion, who would I believe would have had no problem advancing to the final 13 cut based on the voters. CJ Harris was pitchy due to a root canal and Malcolm Allen wasn’t at the top of his game for whatever reason, so this year might not be representative of the semi-finals most years.

    But when you look at the problem historically, it seems true. David Willis, Aaron Marcellus, Todrick Hall, Gedeon McKinney, and especially Nikko Smith and Travis Tucker. There seems to be a habit of talented black men being cut in semi-finals. I’d like to see there advancement percentage next to their average what not to sing score, to see if it’s because less talented black men are being sent to semis by the producers.
    Question: how do contestants like Heejun and Anoop fit into this?

    • reubengann

      On the first point, it’s always good to come up with a more advanced analysis, seeing how many of their eliminations were possibly unfair. But common sense would indicate that in 13 years there can’t have been so systematic an underperforming of one racial group.

      As to the second point, no racial group that I identified had enough people in it to say much of anything. After filipino, the next most frequent racial group was “mixed race”, as the contestants seem to have self-identified (Justin Guarini, RJ Helton, Jared Yates, Bettis Richardson, and Stefano Langone all have been identified as so). Their rates have been relatively good. There have been 4 Asian Indians, only 25% of which advanced based on voting (Anoop Desai was put in by wild card, Sanjaya by voting, and Gurpreet Singh Sarin and Shubha Vedula not advancing).