Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Racism (2): Law & Order and the Problem with Racism

There’s a problem with racism. Most people would agree that racism is bad, and yet most people are racist. It’s always the other guy who’s a racist, you see.

From the writer’s point of view, it’s too easy to go for the cheap shot at racism, the basic point of it being: racism is bad and racists are assholes. Most people would agree with the writer, and he’s achieved nothing but a self-congratulatory feeling in those watching that it’s the other guy who’s wrong. Nothing maintains the status quo better than having people feel good about themselves. This kind of writing doesn’t fight racism, it maintains it.

There are different ways of tackling racism.

For one, you can ignore the problem, fearing, perhaps, that talking about it only exacerbates it. But monsters don’t go away when you don’t look at them. Problems like racism fester, in fact, and come to a boil in race riots and other fun and exciting endeavors.

(See how easy it is and how nice it makes you feel? The last half-sentence in the previous paragraph was an example of a cheap shot, the point of which you already knew: race riots are not a nice thing. The real point of the sentence was, though, that ignoring problems only makes them bigger.)

On the other hand, you can try and tackle racism head on. This leads to other problems. Here’s a selection:

Lingering problems like racism – some of which goes back hundreds of years to the time white people had to convince themselves that black people were so inferior and inhuman it was just to treat them as property – do not go away just by meeting them head on. Lingering problems take lingering solutions;

Sometimes, people are simply too uncomfortable facing the fact that such issues exist;

Sometimes, the problem is too close – people don’t want to face the fact that their parents, grandparents, or best friends are/were so wrong;

Sometimes a solution that is reasonable ten years later seems too extreme to too many people at the time;

And sometimes writers know ahead of time that if they talk plainly to the audience, too many politicians will take the chance to make a headline for themselves by turning it into political hay in their favor (like the Survivor brouhaha a few months back).

So, the writer who wants to tackle the problem, and does not want to either sweep it under the rug or to face it head on will go for the indirect option. And here’s when we get to Dick Wolf, the many writers who work for him, and Law and Order. Law and Order usually tackles current issues, and it’s taken on racism and racists more than once. And almost always, its writers use this third option. Let’s see their two main tactics when tackling racism.

Tactic #1: Taking it out of the spin machine.

As a rule of thumb, most politicians want you to agree with them, while most writers want you to think for yourselves. There’s a big difference there, because if one thinks for oneself, one could adopt an opinion significantly different from yours. For politicians, that’s sometimes a death-knell.

The oldest political trick in the book is being in control of the premise of the question through its phrasing: You’re either with us or you’re against us; America, love it or leave it; the spin stops here; talking about racism only perpetuates a problem; and so on.

A way of diffusing that tactic without stirring any ruffled feathers is to make the audience look at the problem again without giving an answer in either direction. Sometimes taking another prolonged gander at a situation you’ve already defined, a gander that’s free of spin in either direction, allows the audience to find new complexity, new solutions, new problems, reconsider their opinions, see that things are not cut and dry, and come to new realizations.

Here are a couple of examples.

Remember the Mel Gibson incident? Within a week or two, it was either the booze talking or his secret opinions; he had been in rehab, which either helped racism or didn’t; he had sincerely apologized, and many Jews forgave him. And so the incident was remembered, but closed.

A few weeks after that incident, in an episode of Law and Order, cops stop a drunk driver, played by Chevy Chase. Chase has blood on his shirt, and so he’s arrested. Chase is drunk, belligerent, and certain that the cops arresting him because they’re Jewish. Later on, he calls one of the mainstay characters “Sugartits”. It turns out that Chase’s character, unlike Gibson, is a has-been actor who actually is a victim of a Jewish conspiracy. When his career began, Chase made many anti-Semitic remarks, the rumor of which passed from one Jewish producer to another, and so very soon he found that he couldn’t get a job. Unlike the Gibson incident, the episode is about murder and dangerous racism that Chase passed on to his son.

The point is that the writers of Law and Order dredge this up from the well-packaged place in our heads in which we’ve stored the incident, and let us take another look at many aspects of it, without saying one thing about Gibson, without taking a stand in either direction, and without any spin doctor to explain things to us as we think about these events.

In another recent episode of Law and Order, Jennifer Beals plays a famous actress, who, a few months ago, had gone to Africa to adopt a black baby. The baby’s real father stirs up trouble and kills Beals’ husband in the beginning of the episode. The deal he makes with the D.A. is that he would confess if he just got to see the baby. Eventually, the baby is brought for him to see. And he, shocked, claims that’s not his baby. And it turns out that he’s right.

The detectives check and see that one of two things happened: Beals returned from Africa with the child, accidentally killed him, went into rehab while the assistant found a replacement black baby, or: Beals returned from Africa, went into rehab, while the assistant accidentally killed the kid and replaced him with another; and when Beals came back from rehab a couple of months later, she never noticed that’s a different black baby.

Now this situation remains in question, never really commented on, no politician or writer’s mouthpiece there to speechify on the horrible situation and put it into a neat little explainable package for us. It’s just there, for ten or fifteen minutes, in front of our faces. And, inevitably, we think about this for ourselves, and who knows what we come up with.

Tactic #2: Giving us new thoughts and taking no position.

Another tactic the Law and Order writers use is to make a logical leap we may not have made, and perhaps even a politically dangerous leap, and not insist that it’s right. Sometimes, just planting the idea and making sure it sticks is better than planting it and insisting that it’s right. Any parent knows that insisting doesn’t usually work. On the other hand, if I were to find a child and, out of nowhere, tell him that there are no such things as monsters that suck kids’ blood during sleep when the moon is full, it won’t matter how much I deny it. The idea is there, and it’s there to stay.

In an episode a few years ago, a female abortion doctor was shot to death by an anti-abortion zealot. The episode is naturally filled with people of all kinds on the sides of ‘the right to life’ or ‘the right to choose’ (yet another example of a question neatly-framed for our convenience). Jack, the ADA, and Clair, his second chair, are walking down the street, talking about the subject, heatedly.

Jack, Claire says, a woman’s dead because she believed in a woman’s right to choose.

No, Jack says simply, a woman’s dead because someone put a bullet in her head.

And in one second, he has snapped us all out of the ideological framework we’re so used to, and into the personal. A woman is dead, not for her ideals, and not for the murderer’s ideals, but because a man decided to take a life. In an instant we see that most of the ideological war is a cover for something else and is a smokescreen for the real issues. It’s not about politics; it’s all personal.

In another episode, a black woman kidnaps the baby (also black) she had given up for adoption when she was a drug addict, and is caught red-handed trying to leave the city. The case looks sewn up, completely black and white. But then Paul steps into the fray. Paul, a black man, used to be the A.D.A. when Law and Order began. Now, apparently, he’s protecting guilty people. His defense is this: The adoption of the child was racist, and therefore wrong. It seems crazy to everyone, including to a majority of the audience at home. We’ve seen the people in charge of the adoption agency, and everyone’s nice and reasonable.

But when the woman of the agency in charge is put on the stand, Paul gets her to admit that black kids are put in with black families, and white kids with white families. Which means that, on the whole, statistically, white kids get into families that are better off financially and so have better opportunities.

When the audience is faced with that idea, and for a moment it seems that Paul’s point of view is legitimate, then it doesn’t matter what happens afterwards in the story. The idea is in our heads. We’d thought of it as crazy, and now it seems logical.

And here’s an example from Deadline, another Dick Wolf series that was, unfortunately, short-lived. Wallace Benton, an intrepid columnist, does a follow-up about the current condition of crack babies today. He follows a mother, who’s just been arrested after having had her kid, to jail, and from there to court. She has accepted a plea agreement in exchange for a reduced sentence. The judge, however, accepts the guilty plea, but not the sentence. He sentences her to three years in jail or – and here’s the kicker – no jail time at all if she agrees to get herself sterilized. The judge, apparently, is having his own private war on drugs, by keeping more crack babies from being born.

When Benton digs deeper, he finds that the hospital that had admitted the pregnant woman tested her for drugs, something that sounds absurd. He then finds that the hospital routinely checks for drugs in pregnant women and that 200 women have been prosecuted for using drugs while pregnant. Legal precedent leads him to believe that it’s not the health of the babies that worries the judges that had sentenced the women and that “These women aren’t being prosecuted for using drugs,” rather “They’re being prosecuted for being pregnant.” Which leads us to: “It’s a war. It’s a campaign of sterilization against poor, young black women.” And then: “Wars are usually coordinated efforts. You should find out who’s coordinating this one.”

And that one line, that is absolutely true, about wars being coordinated efforts, leads Benton to discover how deep and how high this goes and how long it’s been going on. The concept of wars being coordinated efforts is the concept that sticks in our minds. It teaches us a new logical pattern of thought about the world around us without anyone there to spin it for us.

And now that we’ve seen how the writers of Law and Order do it, we can safely say that the spin stops here. Right?


(This is the second of a three-article series about racism. Next week, we’ll take a break from the heavy stuff and see that racism can be fun.)

1 comment:

M.Dot. said...

In another recent episode of Law and Order, Jennifer Beals plays a famous actress, who, a few months ago, had gone to Africa to adopt a black baby. The baby’s real father stirs up trouble and kills Beals’ husband in the beginning of the episode. T
I saw this episode.

It left me feeling tre ambilivent.