The color-blind racism of “Law & Order”

Posted February 26, 2008

Confession: I am a major Law & Order (L&O) junkie. I just can’t get enough of new episodes and reruns (including episodes I have seen at least a dozen time) of the original L&O. L&O Criminal Intent comes in a close second (although I have never gotten the hang of L&O Special Victims Unit). As a friend and comrade who shares my obsession put it, “It’s got cops and lawyers — what more can you ask from a mainstream TV show?”

L&O is also an excellent barometer of the drift of mainstream US liberalism to the right over the past twenty years or so. Not surprising given that Dick Wolf, the show’s Executive Producer, has gone from being a close friend of the Clintons to a supporter of the second Bush and the short-lived Presidential campaign of Fred Thompson (who starred as DA Arthur Branch on L&O for two seasons). Whether it has been issues of war, poverty, gender, sexuality or race, L&O has presented the current (and changing) face of US liberalism — wrapped in an hour of some of the most diverting TV aired today.

I was moved to write by the episode of L&O aired on January 23, 2008—Driven. The episode opens with three upper middle class white boys walking through a playground in the rapidly gentrifying, but historically African-American and Latino Upper West Side of Manhattan. Three working class African-American teens harass them and take their basketball. It turns out the three white boys, encouraged by the mother of two of the boys (played by Ally Walker of Profiler fame), return with baseball bats to claim their ball. As they chase one of the black teens toward his home, the black teen’s father — already angered by the prospect of being evicted from his apartment because he cannot afford the rising rents that come with the arrival of the white professionals and managers — shoots one of the white youths and accidentally shoots a nine year old black girl who was playing in the park.

After the multi-racial police detective team (Jessie L. Martin, S. Epatha Merkeson and Jeremy Sisto) spend the first half of the show determining the “facts,” the DA decides to try the father of the black teen and the mother of the bat-wielding white kids together. Their “theory of the case” is that both parents were irresponsible and guilty.

For the representatives of the criminal justice system, the actions of the white middle class mom — encouraging her thuggish sons to arm themselves to retrieve their $30 basket by any means necessary — and the actions of the working class black dad — defending his son from immanent danger — were morally and legally equivalent. In the end, the jury agrees—finding both guilty.

I was floored by this nearly chemically pure representation of liberal, “color-blind” racism. An act of racist violence is equated with black self-defense in color-blind justice system, which puts aside race to find justice. The African-American father’s preoccupation with becoming homeless as a result of gentrification is presented as evidence of his “irresponsibility” and “recklessness.” Real inequalities of wealth and social power — of race and class — disappear before “blind justice” that sees not black and white, not workers and professionals, but “citizens” who appear as equals in “the eyes of the law.”

Color-blind racism is the common sense — the mental road map of lived experience — of institutional racism. Before the victories of the African-American freedom struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, white supremacy was maintained by a combination of legal coercion (“Jim Crow”) in the south, and openly racially discriminatory hiring and housing practices in the north. The civil rights and black power movements effectively smashed legal and open racist discrimination in the north and south.

As we know, the end of legal and open racial discrimination did not end racial inequality in the US (or South Africa either). Today, white supremacy over Blacks, Latinos, and Asians (with the exception of undocumented immigrants) is reproduced through “the dull compulsion of the market” not through law and open racist practices. The historic legacy of racism in employment, education, and home ownership (which is the main way working people accumulate wealth that can be leveraged into college educations for their children) put African-Americans and other people of color at a marked disadvantage in the “race-neutral” competition with whites for economic opportunities and resources. People of color are also at a distinct disadvantage in dealing with the race-neutral justice system. Racist justice no longer has to rely, for the most part, on lynch mobs and open appeals to white racism. “Blind-justice” alone can maintain racial subordination.

While the African-American freedom movement was stronger in the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream liberalism and conservatism was forced to acknowledge that the abolition of legal and open racism was not sufficient to end white supremacy. Some race-conscious policies — in particular limited forms of affirmative action in higher education that helped promote the growth of a new middle class among African-Americans and other people of color — were deemed necessary by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

As the social movements of the 1970s retreated, liberals and conservative in both political parties declared “the end of race.” Race-conscious policies like affirmative action and educational desegregation were “no longer necessary.” Whatever residual inequality existed was the result of cultural differences among different groups. Liberals began to argue that many people of color, especially African-Americans, were mired in a “culture of poverty” which discouraged the characteristics (deferred gratification, rational planning, etc.) that were necessary for success. Bill Clinton used such arguments to justify his welfare reform, claiming that cash assistance for single women encouraged a “culture of dependence.” Put simply, mainstream liberalism increasingly blamed the victims of racism for their own predicament.

Perhaps one of the clearest indications of the triumph of liberal, color-blind racism is the success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign this year. While the success of his candidacy is a tribute to the enduring achievements of the civil rights movement, Obama is a decidedly “post-racial” politician. Unlike Jesse Jackson who spotlighted growing class, race and gender inequality in his 1984 and 1988 campaigns, which remained mired in the pro-corporate Democratic Party, Obama presents a color-blind vision in his campaign. Not only has he refused to criticize (and in fact supports) the neo-liberal policies of both parties since the 1980s (hence his praise of Ronald Reagan) nor called for immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq, but Obama is silent on affirmative action and desegregation. It is not ironic that the first African-American with a real possibility of gaining the Presidential nomination of a major party, champions a politics that ignores race.


7 responses to “The color-blind racism of “Law & Order””

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    It is not self defense to shoot at a kid armed with a stick and trying to get back his STOLEN property. Seeing how the mother did not set her sons to do anything but get their ball back, its amazing that you can even say the mother is equallly guilty as the murdering dad. No wonder Trump is president. We are done with absurd double standards, and we are done with absurdly liberal shows like this one. The black youths robbed someone. Anger at not being able to afford rent is really not in any way important. Its only fortunate that in real life, a white mother would never encourage her kids to go back, because most people know that black people are prone to shooting other people.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Wow, you came close to having a point until you showed your true colors there at the end. No wonder Trump is president with racist ignorami like you being allowed the vote. A simple litmus test of human decency and common sense would show you don’t deserve it.

  3. RonF Avatar

    “After the multi-racial police detective team (Jessie L. Martin, S. Epatha Merkeson and Jeremy Sisto) spend the first half of the show determining the ‘facts,’”

    Why is the word ‘facts’ in quotes here? BTW, this episode was based on an actual case.

    “and the actions of the working class black dad — defending his son from immanent danger”

    Actually, if you watch the episode in question, one of the main points of the episode was that the boys were NOT in immanent danger but the father shot anyway.

  4. M. Pace Avatar
    M. Pace

    I’m a big fan of Law & Order, both original and Criminal Intent (though not nearly so much Special Victims’ Unit),
    and have watched these plus innumerable reruns of them since 1992.

    The following applies mainly to the original and SVU versions, since those feature the judicial system in action.

    There is no question that L&O shows a distinct bias against people who kill or severely harm others.

    But one thing that makes me love L&O so much is that it deals in shades of gray — all the time.

    And despite little or no discussion of alternative justice systems — and frequently long prison terms or worse — I have to consider L & O to be a force for the liberal viewpoint.

    This is because it often highlights people’s living situations, sometimes quite downtrodden, situations that are often beyond the control of those living them.

    And the prosecutors aim for — and often achieve — what might be called true justice (or something quite close). That is, taking into consideration the circumstances under which a crime was committed.

    (On the other hand, it’s true that Jack McCoy has often displayed a purely rules-bound viewpoint.)

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Dick Wolf is a staunch republican, and always has been. He is a big supporter of the death penalty, and never supported the Clintons. Law and Order is certainly not a liberal show. It is however a well written show that teachs millions of potential jurors how to find everyone guilty. I know TV doesn’t have to be real life, but glorifying the idea that someone is guilty until proven innocent is just wrong. They do it subtly too. They present the evidence as if they were impartial, but they always have the prosecution talk last( the opposite of real trials) so you remember their message bes. They always make the trial about wether it is likely or not that someone is guilty rather then wether you can prove someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Our constitution is very clear on that. If it isprobable that someone is guilty, but there are reasonable other senarios, the person goes free. Its supposed to be harder to put someone in jail then not. We don’t want any innocent people there. It is illegal for a prosecutor to charge someone with a crime they know them to be innocent of, even tho McCoy does this very often just to shake lose a confession from someone else. Would you want to live in a country where those in power played roulette with innocent peoples lives in order to catch the guilty? I don’t.

  6. Charlie Avatar

    I agree that S. Epatha Merkerson, in particular outside of her role as Anita Van Burean, is not “color-blind.” Clearly, in earlier seasons (some 5-6 years back), her character confronted issues of racism and sexism when she sued the NYPD for passing her over for a promotion to Captain. She has also, in the role, made a number statements that clearly confront racism. However, the trend in the show’s writing– which I believe reflect the politics of mainstream US liberalism– has become increasingly “color-blind.” This has resulted in Van Buren’s character becoming more and more a “professional” rather than a black women.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    I confess my love for Law and Order, too. S. Epatha Merkerson has the distinction of seniority for African American character actors in any TV show. Being the one(woman)in charge and demanding respect is a refreshing aspect of the L&O police show. Her suit for being denied a promotion was a great touch of reality. There’s nothing colorblind about Epatha.