Data in Policy Debate: Diversity and Racism in the Oscars

For the 2nd year in a row the Oscar nominees for best acting roles have been all white--that's 40 nominations. The economist points out some other suspicious examples of non-white team members of good films getting snubbed. This has raised some eyebrows and started an ongoing discussion about diversity in the Oscars. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith are boycotting the Oscars, and Twitter had one of its brief spells of outrage, this time in the form of #oscarssowhite.

We wanted to take the opportunity to take a step back and look at the question with rigor, and understand what the data tells us. The question we think we need to answer is this: "does the Academy have a racial bias in the nomination or award process?"

One (not decisive, but certainly directional) way of testing this is to determine whether the Academy is proportionally less likely to nominate or award some races rather than others. To look at the Academy's behavior specifically, we'd need to look not at the nomination/award outcomes compared to a race's proportion of the general population, but instead we would need to look at the number of actors or top roles. This is because the Academy has to choose from the actors (or, arguably, top billed actors) made available to it by the industry.

The Economist broke down actors and Oscar noms/winners from 2000-2015 by race, with the graph below.

Data 2000-2015; does not include 2016 awards (because they're not done yet).

Data 2000-2015; does not include 2016 awards (because they're not done yet).

Looking purely statistically: 

Blacks: They are approximately proportionally represented as actors and castings, and slightly under-represented in top roles. Given the under-representation in top roles, they are then proportionally likely to be nominated for an Oscar. If they are nominated, they are more likely to win than any other race. The proportion of black Oscar winners is higher than both the total black population and the population of black actors.

(The portion of black Oscar winners has also been on a steady climb decade by decade since the 1940s:)

Hispanics/Latinos: They are far less likely to be actors than other races, by population. Of the Hispanic/Latino acting population, they are slightly less likely to get cast in a film. Of those castings, they are approximately proportionally likely to get an Oscar nomination, but slightly less likely to win. Hispanic Oscar winners are proportionally smaller than their population of actors, and much smaller than their US population.

Asians: Asian actors and film roles are approximately proportional to their population, but then there is a very sharp decline. They are proportionally very unlikely to be cast in a top role or given an Oscar nomination, and in that 16-year period have never won an Oscar.

Others: Other ethnicities are actually significantly more likely by population than any other group to be actors, but they are the least likely to be chosen for a film role. They also see a dramatic decline in top film roles and Oscar nominations, and also have not won an Oscar in this period.

Whites: Significantly more likely to act, be cast, and be cast in top roles. Of those top roles, whites are proportionally selected for Oscar nominations, but those nominees are slightly less likely to be awarded.

If statistical outcomes are the strongest evidence of systemic racism in the Academy, then this might suggest that the Academy has some bias against Hispanics/Latinos, and a very strong bias against Asians and other races, approximately no preference for/against whites, and a slight bias in favor of blacks.

That does not necessarily mean that any of those links are true. But this data does seem to refute the claim that says, "the Oscars noms were all white for the past two years, and therefore the Academy is biased against black people." There may be other ways of determining that the Academy's process is racist against blacks, but counting Oscar nominations does not support that assertion.

Let us know your thoughts: any other good data one could dive into? What else could we study to determine whether and where there is any racial prejudice in the Academy?


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.