The 2013 Trayvon Martin murder trial and his killer’s not-guilty verdict ushered in the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag—and a new wave of ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order episodes.
Three months after George Zimmerman went free and activists launched one of our country’s most important contemporary social movements, a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) episode cloyingly titled “American Tragedy” portrayed the shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager clearly meant to be a stand-in for Trayvon Martin. The boy is shot and killed by a celebrity chef (played by Cybill Shepherd) who has a history of racial prejudice—a nod to Paula Deen, whose own racism is well-documented.
The episode was roundly panned for its mishmash approach; Jezebel described the episode as “ripped from one headline, ripped from another headline, ripped from a third headline and then put in a blender with an added sprinkle of crazy.”
Headlines again are inspiring the Law & Order franchise. Hate crimes in America’s ten largest cities have increased 25 percent over the past ten years. Earlier this month, NBC announced that Law & Order would be introducing its seventh spinoff, tentatively titled Law & Order: Hate Crimes. The series has already received a 13-episode order from NBC and will be loosely based on New York’s Hate Crimes Task Force. Law & Order producer Dick Wolf has stated that he hopes the series will start a dialogue. Lisa Katz, co-president of scripted programming at NBC, called the impending series “extremely timely.” Hate crimes will not have disappeared when the new series debuts sometime next year.
But the timeliness of the issue is not the issue. It is how well-equipped (or poorly in this case) a Law & Order spinoff is to tell stories of racial, religious, and other identity-motivated violence in this country.
The franchise’s point of view—mainly, portraying most law enforcement officers and the criminal justice system in a virtuous light—cannot be ignored, even when it’s sincerely trying to wrestle with racial violence.
To give the show some credit, the Trayvon Martin-inspired episode did feebly attempt to grapple with the complicated racial nuances in the plot. The show added its own special twist by revealing that the Black male teen victim was simply trying to approach the TV chef for an autograph when she shot and killed him. Still, the Paula Deen surrogate was ultimately acquitted of murder charges, much like George Zimmerman. The show depicted the character’s racial bias and presented the not-guilty verdict as a sad reflection of how racism operates in the judicial system.
This is reflective of the real-life response to the George Zimmerman verdict, where an estimated 49 percent of white Americans polled by the Pew Research Center were satisfied with the verdict and an estimated 60 percent felt that race was overemphasized in the case (only 13 percent of Black survey respondents agreed with them).
But these nuances don’t reach the police department itself, whose officers are depicted as heroes trying to do the right thing. That’s a consistent portrayal, particularly when the show chooses to address racism. In the 2005 episode “Raw,” the SVU detectives investigate the racially-motivated sniper shooting of a school playground. The episode goes through great, clumsy pains to make sure that several key members in the criminal justice system—the detectives, the district attorneys, and the FBI agent who has infiltrated a neo-Nazi group responsible for the shooting—are shown expressing disgust and anger about the crime as well as racism more broadly. They speechify about racism and use law to pursue “justice,” so they can’t possibly be part of the problem.
It doesn’t feel like an overstatement to suggest that police procedurals like Law & Order do a significant disservice to the “dialogue” Wolf hopes to start. Typically focusing on the valiant cops who want to root out crime and the bad guys, few look at the perpetrators within their institutions and how the “law and order” culture involves prejudiced targeting and enforcement.
Yes, it’s true that we have seen more honest, complex portrayals of law enforcement on premium cable, such as HBO’s The Wire, which aired from 2002 to 2008. We also see a more thoughtful approach in recent examples, such as Netflix’s Seven Seconds, which aired earlier this year and just netted star Regina King an Emmy for her portrayal of a mother determined to get to the bottom of her son’s death and a police cover-up.
However, when it comes to network TV fare, the criminal justice system is sanitized as anti-racist by default. That sleight of hand speaks to the racial divide in how white Americans and non-white Americans view law enforcement. White people are statistically far more likely to be trusting of the police than are people of color, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of racial bias. Sixty-five percent of white Americans view Colin Kaepernick’s protesting of racially-motivated police brutality unfavorably, whereas 74 percent of Black Americans view it favorably. And finally (and most staggeringly) less than 40 percent of white Americans believe police are more likely to use force when dealing with Black people.
How many of those people view TV shows with a critical eye? And if they are already inclined toward bias that favors police and the criminal justice system, how much have their views subconsciously been reinforced over the years by shows like Law & Order? The answer to these questions may ultimately be unknowable, but it’s still essential to ask them.
Despite Law & Order‘s facile attempts to portray racism itself unfavorably, racial divides in belief and representation play out both on the show and in the series’ production. A 2017 study of diversity in television writers rooms examined several police procedurals, including Law & Order: SVU. Out of the nine procedurals, only one was found to have more than two Black writers on staff. And it wasn’t SVU.
At best, the overwhelming whiteness of these media makers—who may be in sync with their fellow white Americans—gives us an incomplete picture of the criminal justice system. At worst, it serves as an unwitting propaganda machine that sells a narrative of cops as inherently good and a criminal justice system that’s inherently fair.
The Law & Order franchise just celebrated its 28th anniversary earlier this month. And while show co-creator Warren Leight has stated on Twitter that Law & Order: Hate Crimes will have a diverse writing staff, the franchise has largely been in the hands of white storytellers.
Media messages matter. They reflect and influence society. So it’s hard to just ignore nearly three decades of whiteness in the writers room. It’s hard to just have faith this will all work out.
Stories that address the very real problem of hate crimes can be vital, but only if they are intelligent, nuanced, and accurate. And in a country where there is still so much misunderstanding about hate crimes as well as the power dynamics and privilege at play within, it feels foolish to expect that accuracy. Especially when those who seem to misunderstand the most are the ones controlling the narrative.