During the height of anti-communist sentiment in the early 1950s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities released a Hollywood blacklist of more than 300 actors, directors, writers, and other industry professionals suspected of being members of the American Communist Party. But the actual number of artists who were denied jobs during that period was far beyond the number of names on the list, according to a new study by Elizabeth Pontikes of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Thousands of artists who were associated with blacklisted individuals likewise suffered career setbacks. “Even the thinnest of connections with someone blacklisted put an artist at risk of being stigmatized,” says Pontikes, assistant professor of organizations and strategy. The study, which is published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review, finds evidence that stigma can spread by mere association. Pontikes conducted the study with Giacomo Negro of Emory University and Hayagreeva Rao of Stanford University.
The odds of an artist finding employment in subsequent years drop by 13 percent if a previous co-worker was placed on the blacklist, according to the findings. Artists were penalized for working with someone who they may not have known at the time of their collaboration was a suspected Communist. This effect was especially powerful because it only took a single exposure to a blacklisted co-worker to significantly reduce an artist’s chance of finding a job.
The stigma also crossed professional lines. In film, writers and actors have the least role interdependence when it comes to casting. Even so, the study found that stigma by mere association transmitted even more strongly between writers to actors. An actor’s chances of working in Hollywood fell by 13 percent if he had mere association with a stigmatized actor. But working in a film with a writer who was subsequently blacklisted reduced the actor’s actor’s odds of finding a job by 20 percent.
Even high-status and publicly acclaimed artists were not spared from the negative effects of a moral panic. Although it may seem that public recognition should buffer the harmful effects of associating with suspected co-workers, the authors argue that such highly visible artists were in fact easier targets and may have been penalized more because they faced higher expectations from the public.
Indeed, the study found that artists who appeared in a top 10 box-office film are 16 percent less likely to find a job after a co-worker was blacklisted, compared to a smaller 10 percent drop for similar artists who did not appear in a high-grossing film. Oscar winners, however, were partly shielded. The odds of an Oscar-winning artist finding a job after a co-worker was blacklisted were reduced by 9 percent, which is lower than the 14 percent decline for an artist without an Oscar.
The study shows how the “Red Scare” led to widespread discrimination in Hollywood, even beyond what activists likely intended. Once stigma begins to spread by mere association activists can no longer control who is affected.
The damaging effects of this process may apply in a number of settings today. For example, when drug use is uncovered in a sport, advertisers may stop sponsorship of all teams and even remove their ads in related sports. Another example is when companies are accused of running sweatshops. The taint of operating a factory under hazardous conditions can mistakenly spread to partners or suppliers who may have upstanding labor practices.