How television undergirds racism

by Mary Ann McGivern

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One of the big girders of racism in the United States is popular family television. Take "Blue Bloods." In this series, Tom Selleck's character heads an intergenerational Irish Catholic family, the Reagans, as the New York City police commissioner. Well, it's a given that they'd all be white. But the two sons, police officers, have white police partners and white sergeants and lieutenants. The daughter, an assistant district attorney, works with lawyers, all but one of whom are white. Selleck himself has a white PR director and white staff officers.

The black mayor is a reliable antagonist. The recurring black preacher would seem to have no moral compass. And, of course, the vast majority of the criminals chased, caught and prosecuted by Selleck's children are black.

This past year Selleck's character has defended "stop and frisk" and "broken windows" policing without nuance. The writers could create interesting conflict between the commissioner's grasp of the data that challenges "stop and frisk" and his need to respond to competing claims by the media, the police union and elected officials. But that level of complexity never gets a line of dialogue.

Indeed, one of the Reagan sons plays out what may be war-related PTSD, impulsively violating police orders to hold back; he deliberately brutalizes the black men he proves -- by the end of the hour -- to be criminals. Meanwhile, his brother singlehandedly resolves domestic disputes and busts drug rings (black actors, of course) with his so-called Irish charm. The daughter wins the cases in court.

It's too bad. I liked "Blue Bloods" until one night it came to me in a flash that this program reinforces the dominant social narrative: that whites have the insights, the moral authority and the capacity to solve all social problems.

It wouldn't be hard to add some other voices -- black police partners, black prosecutors, black staff in the chief's office. But the producers and writers would have to be committed to voicing different insights and spreading out the moral authority and problem-solving capacity.

"Blue Bloods" isn't the only show that sustains a racist world view. Almost all of them do. And it takes work for us white audiences to recognize how the appeal of the dominant social narrative works on us and reinforces white privilege. Now that I see it on this one show, I've lost my taste for the program. And I've gained some tools to bring to the rest of television.

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