A new report by the Color of Justice has found that fictional crime shows like ‘Law & Order’ and ‘CSI‘ can often serve as PR machines for law enforcement organisations and inadvertently harm black and brown people as they do so.
Their findings below…
‘Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre‘ found that important issues like racial discrimination within law enforcement and the judiciary system went unexplored and unchallenged in at least 26 of the shows they examined for the study.
Worrying, as this does not reflect the reality of African-Americans in their everyday lives.
‘Shadow and Act’ explains…
People of color, especially Black women, were generally not cast as victims of crimes in the series, despite being victimized in real life by violence. In fact, the report cites something showrunners, network executives and producers are to have said to their writers when writing about victims: “Viewers will change the channel if we make the crime victim Black, so you’ll have to rewrite those characters and make them white instead.”
Instead, the study found that the myth that blackness is synonymous with criminality is fuelled by creators who flood their shows with images of black people engaging in criminal behaviour, and characters who represented social justice groups like Black Lives Matter were portrayed as naïve, angry and overzealous disruptors and not benevolent human rights activists.
In the 26 series studied, all but 5 were helmed by white male showrunners. At least 78 percent of the writers on all 26 shows were white, with only nine percent of Black writers counted. To break the numbers down even further, 20 out of the 26 series had either just one Black writer or none at all. The series also found that law enforcement was routinely shown to commit more wrongful actions than the characters designated as the perpetrators. Across 18 of the 26 series studied, the “Good Guy” to “Bad Guy” ratio of wrongful actions was 8 to 1. More people of color were also shown as perpetrators across the 26 series.
Rashad Johnson, the president of Color, had this to say about the fascinating study…
If these TV shows are overwhelmingly showing the victims to be white, and in particular avoiding showing that women of color, particularly Black women are oftentimes victims, what they are doing is they are taking away the power…of who should have their story told.
Unfortunately…these shows are constantly telling the public and painting a picture of white people being harmed by Black people in ways that are not actually existing in society. What we’re building is a false understanding of what the problem is, and then we get false solutions built on public demand for things that are not actually problems. These shows do a whole lot of damage about race, but one of those damages is to make invisible the challenges that Black people face in communities and also taking away the power and voice of Black people to be the deciders of their own fate.”
The narratives that are coming out of Hollywood–for profit–are fueling some of the incentives that we’re seeing in our country, fueling people’s understanding of what they think justice should look like. It also makes it harder for us to push back against injustice,” he continued. Police on these shows are constantly doing bad things but are either being rewarded or are able to give a speech about why they had to do it, [meaning] we are building the mental model for juries, for folks who vote for district attorneys. In order to keep us safe, things are going to be messy and some communities are going to have their rights trampled on, but it’s a means to an end. That can happen when communities are not seen as powerful.
A lot of these shows have worked to diversify their casts…what we oftentimes see are people of color in all sorts of roles and in the last couple of years, people of color in law enforcement. However the writers’ rooms haven’t actually changed. So you have justice written by white writers put through the mouths of elderly, stately Black judges, or police officers who never speak out against what’s happening in the system. As a result, it paints a very false picture.
As a person who has been a lifelong advocate, I am used to the caricature of people who do this work. I am also aware of when a game or a situation is rigged. And the shows employ and uplift those from law enforcement to be the voice in the room. If you only allow one side of the story to be told, if you only allow Bugs Bunny to tell his story, you know how everyone else is going to be framed.
The consequences of this are often deadly for black people. Following the release of 1915’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (a movie which saw black people presented to the world as thugs, brutes and rapists) the number of murders carried out by the Ku Klux Klan rose to horrific levels.
These shows…and all those who are profiting from it, have made a choice. The report’s goal is to both expose that and to hopefully give more power to people on the inside because we know there are people on the inside who want want to do the right thing to push for the right thing and push for change. [We want] to give them more power and more data to do that well. And then the goal…over time is that we are going to run campaigns. We are going to push back against these depictions and folks won’t be able to say that they didn’t know, that there wasn’t any information out there, that they aren’t making a choice, that they aren’t choosing profit over the real depictions of people’s lives and that it could have real harm.
For years we have been in writers’ rooms working with storytellers and producers and we’re going to continue to do that. For folks who want to work with us and want to invite us in and want to engage with us and…bring real people into the writers’ rooms from district attorneys to community leaders to people working on the front lines, we want to make sure we are there to do that. We’re going to be hosting salons and other things and we hope to engage with more people in the industry.