Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Then to Side with Truth Is Noble

one of our favorite tv shows is "blue bloods."  we love the cast, the close family relationships, the tension between the quest to bring the guilty to justice and the constitutional protections that are afforded to criminal and victim alike.  lately i've been troubled about the subtle racism of the show, though.  in a recent episode that we watched, a young black man was being interviewed by a panel of mentors who hoped to guide him toward a more productive life after his recent release from jail.  the young man had the flippant manner of the stereotypical street thug, and an older man on the panel who had also just been released from prison was to be his primary mentor.  this older, and therefore wiser, man was, of course, white.  he was all the things the younger parolee was not:  well spoken, well dressed, patient, kind, full of remorse for the crime he had committed, respectful of law enforcement.  i found myself wondering why the writers had not cast a person of color in the role of the mature role model, someone who shared the background of the younger man, with whom the street-wise youngster could have identified more readily.  or why the man in need of guidance could not have been a more sympathetic figure rather than this stereotype of everything that bigots think all young black men are like.

in another recent show, whoopi goldberg is cast as a member of the city council, a thorn in the side of police commissioner tom selleck.  she wants to abolish a police program that seems to target members of the black community, a program that the police commissioner believes is justified because of the petty crimes that make life unpleasant for law-abiding members of that community.  in the end, the police commissioner prevails when the proposed abolition of the program is defeated in the city council, but he agrees in a private meeting with goldberg to work with her to find compromises that make the program more palatable to her and her constituents.  here we have the wise white authority figure graciously reaching out to his defeated opponent and the councilwoman expressing her amazed gratitude for his unexpected magnanimity.

in yet another episode, a young hispanic man is shot by a black uniformed policeman.  predictably,  the hispanic community erupts in protests, and the policeman is pilloried by the press.  the black mayor of new york city publicly questions the necessity of shooting the knife-wielding latino, provoking an angry response from selleck's character.  in the end, the mayor's position is proved wrong and the vindicated policeman, filled with remorse, transfers to a precinct in a less crime-ridden area of the city.  this plot line has the black mayor apologize to the white police commissioner and inform the commissioner of his intention to resign because of his error in judgment.  the always gracious-in-victory selleck character convinces the mayor to stay on.  again, the wise and generous white man treats his opponent with undeserved respect.

another aspect of the story troubles me:  in yet another show, jamie, the astute younger son of the police commissioner, disarms a man armed with a knife while multiple police officers are yelling at him to back off and let them shoot the man.  here we have the compassionate white police officer who values the life of the wrong-doer so much that he puts his own life on the line to keep the offender from being killed, but when a black police officer is faced with the same situation, he kills the man threatening him rather than holding him at bay while waiting on nearby police officers to arrive and assist him in arresting the man.

all this is to say, that i don't believe that the writers intend to be racist in these scripts, and i still find much to admire in the series.  i've watched six years worth of the show and will continue to watch it as long as new episodes are added, but i've just begun to see the pattern of the wise white authority figures who prevail over less-wise, though often sympathetic, people of color.  this is a trait that is inherent in our culture.  we in the not-much-longer majority community fail to recognize the subtle racist attitudes that we perpetuate.  we are unfamiliar with the trials of non-whites in our culture, and we fail to put ourselves in the shoes of others.  we assume that our reality is the reality of everyone, when it assuredly is not.

we don't know the fear that comes from wondering if a policeman will shoot first and ask questions later.  we don't know the fear of wondering if our child will be criminalized by an action at school that is perceived as threatening when it merely questions authority.  we don't know the fear of wondering if our child, or ourselves, will be shot by a stand-your-ground vigilante if we go into a white neighborhood by necessity or mistake.  we don't know the fear of seeing our young son  imprisoned for committing crimes for which a white man, more than likely, would have been given a suspended sentence.  we don't know the shame of being viewed as "welfare queens" because we are black and poor.  we don't know what it's like to be viewed as stereotypes rather than as unique individuals.

i hope that the writers of a series that i enjoy recognize the underlying racism of some of their scripts, and i hope that viewers like me will see the bias that we perpetuate every day.  may we as a society and as individuals have empathy for those whose skin color and backgrounds are different from ours, recognizing them as human beings with the same needs as us.  may we admit our culpability for the wrongs we find in our culture.  may racism and bigotry become relics of a past that is no more.  shalom.

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