Making a Murderer is About Race Precisely Because It Isn’t About Race

My awesome, sassy, and all-around brilliant colleague Dr. T. J. Tallie recently passed along this gem from Tumblr about the Netflix hit Making a Murderer:

[looks into the camera like on the office] _ Tumblr - Mozilla Firefox 2016-01-13 10.36.49

It got me thinking about a point that I made in my review of the show over at Unwinnable, namely that

We might ask on behalf of victims like Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner just how easy it is for the police to target and eliminate someone without suffering any consequences.  We might ask how differently things might have turned out for Steven Avery and his nephew Brenden Dassey if they were African American.

I think this point deserves to be elaborated upon.  How is it possible that the very same public can be so enthralled and moved by the story of Steven Avery’s mistreatment at the hands of the Manitowac County Sheriff’s Department at the same moment that protesters in the #BlackLivesMatter movement who are also raising questions about police abusing their authority are called “thugs,” “garbage,” and a “murder movement“?

If you guessed “racism” then congratulations!  You have been paying attention!

Seriously, though, I am thinking about the function of the current love of Making a Murderer has in our current political climate and this is what I could come up with:

I think Making a Murderer is popular because it lets us pretend that an institutional problem is actually an individual problem.

When it comes to the victims of police abuse, Steven Avery and his family are made out as poor, dumb, unlucky individuals who don’t deserve the treatment they got from the legal system.  We in the audience are encouraged to sympathize with them because “there but for the grace of God go I.”  But at the same time, the show subtly suggests that there are things we might do, things that are under our control, to avoid a similar fate.

We console ourselves by thinking:

  • Steven and especially Brenden are seemingly mentally challenged and uneducated, so if I were to find myself in a situation like this I would never incriminate myself like that.  The cops wouldn’t be able to “get in my head” (never mind the fact that police are trained to elicit confessions whether they are true or not and that, according to The Innocence Project, “more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement”).
  • I don’t have a history as a young hellion who burned the family cat alive so I would never draw the ire of the police like he did (never mind the fact that Avery also had a history of being railroaded by the cops for a crime he didn’t commit).
  • If I was freed from prison after being held for 18 years for a crime I didn’t commit, I would move away from the county that put me away!  I wouldn’t be so careless as to stay in the a place where I suspect the police have such malice towards me.  Avery himself even laments his decision to stay there (never mind the fact that his family probably couldn’t afford to move away even if they wanted to)

In other words, we are able to reassure ourselves that so long as we take certain precautions (which are we are taught to consider by the show itself), we need not really fear the kind of treatment that Avery got.

Making a Murderer makes us feel comfortable even in the midst of our discomfort because it depicts an flawed individual being targeted by corrupt individuals and not an entire race of people targeted by an entire social institution.  It directs our anger at individual cops, lawyers, investigators, prosecutors, and judges to whom we can send angry emails, leave threatening voicemail messages, and issue negative Yelp reviews.  We can all have our Two Minutes Hate and then go back to business as usual, leaving the system itself in tact.

#BlackLivesMatter, on the other hand, forces us to confront the fact that the system itself is corrupt, that the rules of the game are fundamentally unfair and that we can easily lose our freedom or our lives due to things beyond our control.

Things like skin color.

And rather than confronting this daunting truth, a truth that demands we take actions far beyond simply signing a petition or trolling a public official, we prefer to blame those who call attention to it, insisting that they must be doing something wrong as individuals to justify what happened to them.  Maybe they were wearing a hoodie and looked like the didn’t belong.  Maybe they had been drinking or smoking marijuana.  They must have been “no angel” and thus the system that gunned them down was only tragically mistaken, not fundamentally broken.

Our justice system must be fair and impartial for the most part, right?  Right?



3 thoughts on “Making a Murderer is About Race Precisely Because It Isn’t About Race

  1. Thanks for this excellent post. You put into words the thoughts I was trying to formulate about the show. I just started watching the show because of all the buzz, and found myself not really interested because – well, I though – these same huge, systematic abuses of power and injustices occur every day to People of Color. So when it happens to a white guy, a 10 part documentary is called for? Can you imagine the length of the documentary required to cover the cases of this happening to people of color in just the past 2 years?

  2. Pingback: Documentary Sunday – The Confession Tapes | Unwinnable

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