The entertainment industry and political world’s attention pivoted to the Supreme Court this week as the nation’s highest judicial body deliberated a case that would determine the strength of a 19th-century civil rights law protecting people against racial discrimination in business dealings.
In the months and weeks leading up to the highly polarizing hearing, several public figures, politicians, activists and civil rights organizations rallied support for African-American media mogul Byron Allen and weighed in on the implications of his $20 billion lawsuit against television conglomerate Comcast alleging their race-based denial of his dozen-plus channels.
Some people, including Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), even went as far as to threaten Comcast’s breakup in a letter to company CEO Brian Roberts last week.
“Comcast has enjoyed the largesse — as has the cable industry, in general — of the African American and other minority communities, and has reached such prominence that it now disregard these communities with a cold, callous corporate insensitivity that is stultifying, arrogant, harmful, and intensely painful,” Rush, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote to Roberts.
Rush’s Nov. 8 letter followed the South Burlington, New Jersey NAACP’s boycott of the newly released Harriet Tubman biopic, distributed by Focus Features, a company owned by Comcast. In early October, Democratic Sens. and presidential candidates Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D- Calif.) joined their Congressional Black Caucus colleagues and other organizations in their filing of a Supreme Court amicus brief heralding Section 1981 the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a law designed to protect newly freed, entrepreneurial African Americans during the Reconstruction Era.
Wednesday’s Supreme Court showdown focused less on Allen and Entertainment Studio’s specific qualms with Comcast, and more on the interpretation of Section 1981. In what some detractors said appears as collusion, Comcast set aside 10 minutes of its face time with the Supreme Court for Department of Justice officials speaking on their behalf. This summer, U.S. Attorney General William Barr filed a brief in Comcast’s favor asking the court to narrow the definition of discrimination, as expressed in Section 1981, and place the burden on Allen to prove race as the singular factor in his rejection.
In 2015, Allen, CEO of Entertainment Studios, used Section 1981 in his lawsuits against Comcast and Charter, the nation’s second largest cable operator. In the Charter case, the court ruled in Allen’s favor while Comcast won its court proceedings against the media mogul. Once Charter filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Allen took similar action against Comcast, whose representatives touted its dedication to diverse programming.
Such explanations didn’t suffice. In February, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Allen’s favor in the Comcast and Charter cases. From that point on, Comcast would take its $20 billion legal battle to the Supreme Court.
Allen, the son of an NBC publicist, founded Entertainment Studios in 1993 after a successful run as a comedian. By 2018, he launched eight HD channels and purchased TheGrio.com and the Weather Channel. Throughout the course of his $400 million career, Allen has touted the importance of business ownership. His lawsuits against Comcast and Charter came after conversations with the Obama administration about the business practices of media conglomerates.
Last month, as he recounted his rags-to-riches story to radio hosts Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee and DJ Envy on “The Breakfast Club” show, Allen said his court battle, a new frontier in the fight for economic freedom for Black people, could either solidify or destroy what Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 had set out to do.
“I need the Black community to understand that my case is not in the Supreme Court,” Allen said on Oct. 30. “They said they would look at Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This law was put on the books 153 years ago to make sure we had a pathway to economic inclusion. It’s the very first civil rights statute that gave birth to civil rights. It stops economic genocide. Comcast is trying to eviscerate it. They’re pushing for the statute to go away.”