Crime dramas are the cornerstone of primetime television, but according to Color of Change's groundbreaking report, the genre is reinforcing policies and attitudes surrounding the criminal justice system that hurt people of color the most. In fact, the report suggests that the amount of negative bias and misinformation in crime procedurals makes them a "PR machine" for law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a whole.
The report, entitled Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television's Scripted Crime Genre, revealed that out of 26 procedurals, important topics such as racial bias in policing and the judicial system went largely unchallenged or under-explored. 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."
Meanwhile, people of color were usually painted as the perpetrators of crimes. Characters who represented advocate groups such as Black Lives Matter were often portrayed as naive, misinformed crusaders instead of informed fighters for justice. And more often than not, Black judge characters were used as figureheads to dispense white perspectives about law and the criminal justice system.
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.
In relation to onscreen diversity versus diversity in the writers' room, the study's Racial Integrity Index found that series with characters of color had mostly white writers' rooms, meaning that the cultural and racial backgrounds of the characters onscreen were missing behind the scenes.
"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," said Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change.
Robinson said that the results have profound effects on how viewers think about how race and gender play a part in the criminal justice system.
"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," he said. "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."
Some of that damage is coming from characters who look like the communities affected. Judges and law enforcement officers who are Black are used by writers to justify the injustice that happens within a show's story. Robinson said that the effect helps audiences believe that the actions taken by the criminal justice system "must be fair" if a Black character is endorsing them. The characters, he said, are a "symbolic use of Blackness...Black visibility as a stand-in for actual justice and actual truth."
"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," he said. "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."
On a personal note, for him, seeing advocates portrayed as uninformed vigilantes is discouraging, but unsurprising.
"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," he said. "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."
There are solutions Color of Change recommends for showrunners who want to create more inclusive shows based on the actual realities of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Solutions include hiring more writers of color and writers with specific knowledge of the show's subject matter, reaching out to advocacy groups as consultants and doing proper research of the subject matter.
"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," he said. "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," he continued. "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."
Along with working with more writers' rooms and networking more throughout Hollywood, Robinson said that Color of Change will provide an outlet for viewers to speak out and "push back against these narratives and tell stories about how these narratives have impacted their lives."
"For us, all of that is going to be critically important to moving us forward," he said.
The full report can be read at ChangeHollywood.org.
Photo credit: NBBC
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