Luke & Order

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(No, not that Luke.  The other one.)

Okay, first of all, I’m aware that Luke Cage has been much written about.  I confess, I haven’t read much of the commentary.  Pure laziness.  I understand a lot of the criticism was about the show subscribing to a rather conservative form of Black ‘respectability politics’.  I can certainly see that issue, but I’m not going to concentrate on it.  Even so, I strongly suspect I’m still going to be reiterating stuff other people have already said.  Also, I’m a white British guy, so inevitably I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding and criticising this particular text. 

Throat-cleared, and ass hopefully covered, here we go.

Oh, and SPOILERS and TRIGGERS.

For various complex, tedious, and irrelevant reasons, I’ve seen a lot of Law & Order in my life, despite not really liking it.  At times, the Marvel/Netflix series Luke Cage strongly reminded me of Law & Order.  Specifically, bits of it strongly reminded me of the Law & Order ‘race episode’.  I say ‘race episode’ singular because Law & Order really only had one race episode, which they made over and over and over again.

Roughly, it went like this:

A crime is committed against a Black person in New York, or by a Black person in New York, or in the ‘Black community’ in New York… or some combination of all three.

The police investigate in good faith.  The police department treats a crime in the Black community exactly the same way they treat every crime they investigate, every week.  However, in the course of their investigation, they have to interview and question Black people… which causes them problems.  Many of the Black people they question respond with mistrust and hostility to the police, who are just trying to do their job.  They are immediately and irrationally touchy, respond with anger to reasonable questions, throw out accusations of harassment when simply being treated as the police would treat any witnesses, etc.  Much anti-police rhetoric is used by Black characters, the substance of which is belied by how we see the actual police behave.

Several key members of the police team, often in senior positions, are themselves Black.  The Lieutenant in charge of the detectives is Black, and is also a woman  - the police precinct upon which Law & Order is centred being run by, for most of the series, a Black woman cop.  Other members of the police hierarchy will be Black too. 

The police will find themselves under immense and unfair pressure from the powers-that-be and the media to solve the case quickly, preferably with the arrest of a non-Black suspect. 

There will probably be a scene where the police are mobbed by the media, who insolently ask them questions about whether they’re covering something up from racist motives, etc.  Media intrusion - which pushes an unfair narrative of racist cops failing to give the Black community justice, deliberately or through incompetence - will severely hamper the police investigation.  Not only are the authorities shown to harbour no racism, explicit or implicit, but they are also shown to be justly terrified of the Black community’s irrational ire.

There may well be a Black politician - be they a city councilman, or a radical preacher, or whatever - who will also cause the police huge problems, relentlessly stoking the rage of the Black community, using incendiary rhetoric, invoking the name of Martin Luther King for their own cynical purposes, misrepresenting the actions of the police, spinning conspiracy theories about systemic racism, encouraging protests (which are inherently irrelevant and a hindrance to getting things sorted out), and furthering their own opportunistic agenda in the process.  The Black community will be shown to be mostly entirely in the thrall of these charismatic but insincere trouble-makers.  They will be depicted as clockwork mice at the command of the angriest African-American voice.  They will be shown rallying when told to, mindlessly chanting and pumping their angry fists in the air, disrupting court proceedings, and generally behaving like pitchfork-brandishing villagers in a Frankenstein movie.

Of course, Law & Order will go on to show the trial stage of the case, in which the well-meaning DA and prosecutors, who only care about justice (unlike all those angry people outside, with their political agendas), will fall over themselves to be sensitive to the Black community, but will also stubbornly and heroically insist upon pursuing justice.  People of principle, they will find themselves up against a defense attorney who is essentially a con-artist.  The defender is either being cynical and slimey, seeking to raise their profile, or is entertaining a deluded and fanatical political agenda.  Win or lose, their arguments will be shown to amount to a kind of special pleading, a demand for extra exemptions or privileges for Black people, a petulant demand for a get-out-of-jail-free card based on positive discrimination, predicated on excuses and a refusal to take responsibility, and blaming racism and/or white people for all their problems, most of which they cause themselves, some of which they simply fantasize into existence. 

Prosecutor Jack McCoy (or whoever) will get a speech about how it’s Black people who create racism nowadays by refusing to take responsibility for their problems, blaming everything on white people, demanding special treatment, and hallucinating racism everywhere they look.

There is real racism in the New York of Law & Order, but it is confined to aberrant individuals, bad apples (the occasional redneck cop that most of the others hate), and full-on white supremacists (who the authorities naturally pursue with righteous vigour).  Following the ‘race episode’ there will be a ‘racism episode’ (note the disconnection) in which the rough-diamond cops-with-hearts-of-gold will arrest - and the fiery liberal prosecutors will prosecute - actual racists, who will generally be members of an overt white-supremacist terrorist organisation comprised of a few unhinged bigots (because that’s what racism really is). 

This is a caricature… but it’s not that much of a caricature.  It was basically that bad.  Again and again and again. 

(Oh, and by the way, the same basic dynamic is largely true of the Law & Order feminism episode, the Law & Order gay issues episode, etc, etc, etc.  Other episodes they made over and over again included the the abortion episode and the rich people episode.  These are interesting because they tend to come from an ostensibly more strongly progressive direction, but simplify the issues into crude caricature and meaninglessness.  But we’ll resist that digression.  Suffice to say: Law & Order’s claims to being drama which explored complex issues were laughable.)

Now, onto Luke Cage.  I saw a lot of the Law & Order race episode in Luke Cage.  (There are lots of things to be said about Luke Cage, some of them good, so you’ll have to pardon my deliberately rather narrow and negative focus here.)  True, there’s a lot in the Law & Order race episode that doesn’t get into Luke Cage, or gets into it in only a muted or transmuted form, but it’s still sometimes recognisably playing with the same ideas.

It’s notable that almost all the killings in the series are committed by Black people.  Even when Shades kills a load of Diamondback’s (Black) henchmen, it’s actually self-defence.  The crime which kickstarts the entire narrative, the hijacking of the arms deal in the scrapyard, is a matter almost entirely between young Black men (one of them is Hispanic).  The subsequent attack on Pop’s is an attempted massacre of Black people by a Black Man, with Shades looking on.  Shades plans to kill Cottonmouth but Mariah gets there first.  (Shades eventually kills Candace, it’s true.) 

Now, a lot of this is down to the laudable fact that Luke Cage is a story largely about Black people, and thus has a cast of largely Black characters - something so rare in the mainstream that some perplexed white viewers were genuinely moved to complain, without any apparent self-awareness, about the absence of faces like their own in the show.  (Bless.)  Most killings in Luke Cage are of and by Black people, because Black people do most of everything in Luke Cage.  Which is good.  But it nevertheless makes Luke Cage a series about what can, with a nasty agenda in play, be called ‘Black on Black crime’.  In the context of a society in which every attempt at talking about issues of structural racism and inequality is met with reactionary screeching about all the ‘Black on Black crime’ that we’re supposedly ‘not talking about’, this is a big contextual issue.  It also, as I say, ties in with the usual manner in which the Law & Order ‘race episode’ worked.  The very first iteration of the ‘race episode’ was about a Black girl who falsely claimed to have been sexually abused by “white cops” (thus igniting a needless race war on the streets) to cover up the fact that she was being cruelly treated by her abusive father.  And it goes on like that, generally.

As in Law & Order, the police investigate in good faith (we’ll get to that), but find themselves stymied by the media, and by the powers-that-be desperately pressuring them for results because they’re scared by the furious reaction of the protesting Black mobs with placards.

Luke Cage doesn’t play up the idea of Black protestors as a mob of unhinged, delusional, nonsensically furious and unreasoning dupes quite as much as Law & Order always used to… but even so, all Mariah has to do is spout a few slogans and the anonymous hordes come running with their placards.  Mariah is definitely an iteration of the same cynical Black rabble-rousing demagogue repeatedly seen in Law & Order, with her opportunistic invocations of Black heroes, etc.  In Law & Order, this was all linked to the prevailing 1990s moral panic in white mainstream liberal circles about what was called ‘Black Rage’, which was a supposed epidemic of unreasoning Black fury in response to perceived but unreal slights, despite functional racial equality supposedly having been achieved (what with Clinton being "the first Black President" and all).  That particular iteration has died, but the underlying purblindness, complacence, and paranoia remain. 

Of course, Mariah is interesting in that she actually defends the police.  Her particular brand of Black ‘respectability politics’ is all about defending the justness of the status quo, and of claiming moral respectability for Black people based on their acceptance of it, and cooperation with it.  As an establishment representative of Harlem, which is now transformed by neoliberalism, this makes sense.  Even so, I don’t think there’s any denying that the scenes in which she leads rowdy and emotional protests reek of a reconfigured form of the same of terror of the insurgent Black crowd.  She looks like the quintessential racist portrait of Black leaders as cynical, insincere, opportunistic, the herders of an irrational mob.  Luke Cage might have more surface sympathy for the protesters than Law & Order ever did, but ultimately their feelings of outrage are contextualised by the causes of the police misconduct to which they’re responding.  The police are repeatedly alibied, even when they're wrong, and the whole thing takes on the contours of the classic ‘tragic misunderstanding’ that was so beloved by the writers of Law & Order, even if they put more of the failure of intellect onto angry Black people.  (We’ll get to the issue of how Luke Cage alibis the cops.)  Whatever sympathy we might be encouraged to feel for them, the people in the protesting crowds in Luke Cage are a reconfigured version of the same easily-fooled dupes who just do whatever they’re told, and get angry about whatever they’re told to get angry about, by the identity politics demagogue with the loudest voice. 

Mariah actually sets about trying to adapt and redirect the anti-police anger of the Black protesters towards Luke.  She succeeds.  People at least tolerate her triangulations, despite Luke having much support in the community.  It’s a hamfisted depiction of protest which, in typical bourgeois fashion, sees protesters as desperate to find a leader to obey, even when her priorities are not really theirs.  When ordinary Black people in Harlem manage to break free of Mariah’s agenda, and lend Luke their support and help, they do it individually, not collectively.  Individual action is the scene of free moral choice and thought.  Collective protest is the death of such things.  And, of course, the most pivotal example of a Black Harlem resident defying Mariah’s anti-Luke agenda is a cop.  The cops’ distrust of Luke is rational you see, if mistaken… unlike the distrust of the fooled crowd.  So naturally, a cop - being rational and free of any group prejudice (!) - is the guy to see things clearly.

Most of the important cops in the story of Luke Cage are Black.  In fact, in Luke Cage, the NYPD seems to mostly be run by Black cops.  Black women cops.  At least, in Harlem.  One of the series’ main protagonists is a Black woman cop.  Both her bosses are cops who are also women of colour.  This actually trumps Law & Order in which, although Lt. Van Buren - a Black woman senior police officer - is a major character, we don’t generally see her reporting to two Black woman superiors.

(There’s always a risk, at times like this, of sounding like a malignant twerp who is feeling threatened.  Let me assure you, that’s not my issue here.  At least, I hope it isn’t.)

What are the facts?  Time for me to do some amateurish research.

As of 2014, Black people made up about 16% of the NYPD, despite being 23% of the city’s population.  Meanwhile, 33% of New York’s population is white, and are represented to the tune of 54% in the NYPD.  (Source.)  These numbers are maybe not terrible, but they’re definitely not as good as they could be.  Even so, the NYPD seems to be more racially diverse than any other US police force.  In 2014, the NYPD took in 607 academy graduates.  51% were from ‘minorities’.  (Source.)  Whites still heavily outnumbered any individual non-white ethnicity.  The number of Black applicants seems to be falling again after an upward trend.

80% of applicants were male, leaving women significantly outnumbered. 

In 2015, women made up almost 35% of the NYPD, and only 17% of uniformed officers.  (Source.)

The number of woman officers in the NYPD has been hovering around 16-17% since at least 2003, according to this graph…

 

...which comes from this study by Salomon Alcocer Guajardo, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Public Management, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York.

As you can see from this graph, of the 17% of the NYPD in 2013 who were uniformed woman officers, roughly 5% were Black.  Roughly 6% were Hispanic.  So Black and Hispanic woman officers outnumbered white female officers in 2013.  Even so, uniformed officers who were also women of colour were very much a minority.

Luke Cage doesn’t violate this reality.  Most of the uniformed officers seen in the series are white males, with some Black males seen, with one playing a brief but pivotal role.

But we’re chasing the issue of how realistic it is to see Black female non-uniformed ranking officers.  This is hard to determine, at least for me.  I have to admit, I couldn’t get the numbers.  If anyone can help me find them, I’d be very grateful.  I had to interrogate Google pretty hard to get the information I did find, especially about women police officers.  There were far fewer sources on the representation of women in the NYPD, and in police generally, than there were on racial demographics.  The sources on women officers of colour were fewer still.  Mysteriously.  Because, y’know, that issue isn’t important at all.

While minorities have been increasingly represented in higher ranks since the early 2000s, they’re still heavily outnumbered.  In 2014, 82% of NYPD officers of Deputy Inspector rank or higher were white, with only 6.8% for Blacks.

The Guajardo study referred to above also tells us that, in 2015, while 47% of uniformed police officers (of all genders) were white, they constituted 54.7% of detectives.  Black officers, at 15.9% total, constituted 15.7% of detectives.  The pattern holds for Sergeants.  So white officers are more likely to be of higher ranks.

According to another study by Professor Guajardo, looking at racial and gender composition of the NYPD between 2005 and 2011:

the level of diversity within the police ranks declines precipitously and consistently after the rank of sergeant, and the disparity ratios reveal that the number of White officers exceeds the number of Black, Hispanic, Asian, and other minority group officers for all ranks with the exception of the rank of police officer. The findings also show that the number of female officers in general lags far behind those of males as well as of specific police ranks.

Despite progress in hiring minorities and females into the NYPD, the advances that minorities and females have made in regard to promotions within the NYPD have been marginal at best.

Again, to be honest, I couldn’t come up with an answer to the (apparently simple) question I wanted answered: how many Black female plainclothes detectives are there in the NYPD?  Nobody seems to know, or care, or at least be prepared to tell us.  Not on the internet anyway. 

Of course, I'm not a proper scholar doing real research; I'm a dilletante footling around on the internet.  Even so, I'm going to be impudent and go ahead and make some (I hope) reasonable guesses about the general picture.  The information above shows that women uniformed officers are in a decided minority, and Black women uniformed officers are a minority within that minority (though, as I say, they outnumber white woman uniformed officers).  Moreover, the promotion prospects for non-white officers are generally lower than those of white officers.  Apparently, it is simply not known how many plainclothes police officers roam the streets of New York.  But the article I just linked to says it’s probably “well into the hundreds”... which, while alarming from some angles, is a relatively small amount of the total police force.  Of course, not all these plainclothes cops are detectives.  The Detective Bureau of the NYPD, at least according to Wikipedia, numbers 5,000 employees.  This seems a suspiciously tidy number, but it’s at least a general indication of the relative size of the detective division.  (Again, not all these employees will be detectives, of course.)  So we’re looking at the plainclothes NYPD detectives being a relatively tiny group.  Given that Black female uniformed officers are a minority within a minority, and one that is - on the axis of race alone - disadvantaged when it comes to promotion, I think it's fair to assume that the number of Black woman plainclothes police detectives of senior rank in New York is going to be pretty small.  I stand to be corrected.

Luke Cage shows us no less than three in one Precinct alone.  Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), Inspector Priscilla Ridley (Karen Pittman), and Thembi Wallace (Sonja Sohn, who is African-American/Korean). 

Of course, it’s an old conundrum.  Is it good to have positive and inclusive representation at any cost, or does it come at too high a price when it misrepresents the realities of the world?  I understand the former view but I tend towards the latter.  I think it’s great for Black women to see themselves on TV, in positions beyond and above the old stereotypes.  But I also worry about the way the capitalist culture industries now relentlessly misrepresent capitalist society as far more equitable and equal than it really is, with the whole enterprise underwritten by a specious and complacent liberalism that is eager to address these issues only when they are confined to improving representation in narrative media.

I strongly suspect that, just as the public tend to massively underestimate the numbers of civillian casualties in Western wars, massively overestimate the numbers of Muslims living in Western countries, massively overestimate how much Islamic terrorism goes on, massively overestimate how much of the welfare budget goes to refugees, etc etc etc, they'd probably also massively overestimate the number of Black female police officers, FBI officers, Judges, etc, and for similar reasons.  The problem here is that people are being encouraged to think that their societies are more equal than they really are, or maybe even that the disadvantaged are actually now advantaged. In this context, it isn't hard to see why some react to Feminism, or to the sight of angry Black protesters, with puzzlement and resentment.

The under-representation of Black women in the higher ranks of the police does not, of course, stem from any inherent lack of ability, but rather from structural factors.  At the sharp end, we’re talking about discrimination, economic inequality, disproportionate lack of opportunity, etc.  At the blunter-but-no-less-troublesome end, we’re talking about socio-ideological disincentives that amount to psychological and cultural barriers, which is all tied up with capitalist patriarchy.  Of course, it’s possible that seeing Black woman detectives on TV, despite them being relatively rare in reality, might help chip away at some of these psychological and cultural barriers, but that’s a bit too much like blaming the victim for me, seemingly implying that equality doesn’t exist yet only because the under-represented simply feel less worthy… and that we can help them get over this by patronising them and, effectively, lying to them.

(This is without getting into any of the issues about ‘lean-in’ establishment feminism, or what role the police really play in capitalist society in general, their role in maintaining the unequal racial order, or the more troublesome aspects of the NYPD in particular.)

The trouble with Luke Cage showing us an NYPD seemingly full of high-ranking Black women is that it basically lies to us about the state of the world.  This is especially troublesome in a show which visibly sets itself the remit of ‘saying something’ about issues of race and… well, of law and order. 

This sort of double consciousness is riven right through the show.  It’s great that a show gives us a Black hero who wears a hoodie and who sometimes has to defend himself against white beat cops who are trigger-happy and dangerous when they stop a Black man who is just walking along in the street, minding his own business.  The relevance of that is obvious, as is the charge inherent in seeing the Black man in question then defend himself by throwing those cops flying, and all in righteous self-defence, and without losing his hero status. 

Trouble is, as I say, the show alibis the cops as much as it condemns them.  The white cops who stop Luke are not just happening upon someone they instantly racially-profile, or responding to a panicky call from someone who’s scared by the very sight of a passing Black man.  They’re on the look-out for a man who is, as far as they genuinely know, a dangerous suspect.  He’s supposed to have murdered a white cop (who is depicted as about the most harmless and universally-beloved guy imaginable).  Naturally, the cops are generally depicted as only becoming trigger happy and aggressive with suspects as a response to an unprovoked attack on one of their own.  Luke matches the description of the suspect because… well, because he is him (though he didn’t kill the officer).  The cops are actually stopping the right man, as far as they can be expected to know.  They are, moreover, justified in feeling extremely wary of Luke Cage.  Luke is very big and intimidating, unlike most of the Black people we’ve seen in dashcams and phone-films being aggressively tackled by police.  And unlike, say, Eric Garner, Luke also happens to genuinely be super-strong and near-impervious to pain or injury.  The racist perception of Black men as bigger and more physically threatening is actually implicitly justified in this instance, in the story

This is the inherent problem with the whole concept of Luke, which is that he’s a character based on the old racist stereotype of the Black man as a sort of human-shaped rock, scarily powerful, a great hulking lump of dangerous meat, impenetrable, unable to feel pain or punishment the way other bodies do… all of which comes more or less directly from the ideology of slavery.  Slavery was ideologically justified with a narrative about Black people which centred on their skin, not just its colour but also its supposed brutish, animalistic, inhuman imperviousness.  The whole concept of the character of Luke is bound up with his skin having just this quality.  Luke Cage arguably subverts and detournes this stereotype, or tries to, but it’s still an inherent problem with the character.

When the inevitable altercation with the beat cops happens, what we actually see on screen - whatever the rationale for this - is a total inversion of the reality that is now so troubling and disturbingly frequent (in relative terms), i.e. the image of cops inflicting serious injury on Black bodies they misperceive as existentially threatening.  One of the cops does pump Luke’s back full of bullets but, as we know, Luke’s skin can deflect them, very much unlike Walter Scott’s.  Moreover, unlike Walter Scott, Luke isn’t running away but actually only has his back turned on one cop because, sensing that bullets are about to fly in his direction, he grabs the other cop and turns him around, thus protecting him from his partner’s shots.

As is so often the case in ideologically-inflected depictions of unequal power relationships, the person who would be at a disadvantage in the real world is depicted as more strong than those who would actually pose a deadly threat to them.  As is also common in such depictions, the super-strong oppressed then have the greater moral responsibility laid upon them too.  Luke is very pointedly not, say, a pre-teen with a toy gun, or a fleeing 5-year old, or a teenage girl at a pool party.  He is instead a massive, genuinely dangerous, genuinely impervious fugitive… and he is allowed to be the hero in spite of this only because he takes it upon himself to protect the people who would carelessly end his life.  Meanwhile, they, whatever is implied about how they automatically see Luke, are alibied by their justifiable agenda, and their understandable jitters… just as the cops are so often seen as justified in court when yet another black body lies riddled with bullets.

The impunity with which Luke is eventually allowed to walk away from this altercation by the police authorities, once he has walked in and provided them with “context”, is also deeply misleading. 

This sort of weirdly skewed misrepresentation crops up again and again. 

There’s a scene where a cop arrests a Black kid, puts him in an interview room, fails to start any recording of the encounter, fails to ensure the kid has another suitable adult present, fails to inform the kid of his rights, and then, physically assaults him.  But the cop in question is Black.  Again, this is a misrepresentation of how such things tend to work, at least in high profile examples.  I don’t actually have much of a problem with the fact that the cop in this example is himself Black.  In many ways, it gets at something true, which is that such situations don’t exclusively involve white cops.  (...which itself gestures towards the structural, systemic, institutional class role of the police in the maintenance of the racial order of capitalist social hierarchy.  It’s more than just white ‘bad apple’ bigots in the force.)  However, there’s no denying that the way the scene is designed looks like cowardice, like pussyfooting around a raw meta-truth.  At least the two cops who stop Luke in the street are both white.  But the real thing I want to get to here is that the cop who beats the kid in the interview room is depicted as responding to what he reasonably sees as intense provocation (Luke killed a cop; this kid is protecting him, etc).  Moreover, the abusive cop is actually arrested, according to Inspector Ridley.  When Misty chokes (!) Claire Temple in an interview room, she is put through an institutional wringer of suspension and psychological evaluation before being allowed to return to duty.  Not only is the act of choking a suspect reconfigured as something a Black woman does, it is then depicted as something the Department treats with the utmost horror.  And the institutional response is itself overseen by a Black woman senior officer.

While I’m sure there are procedures in place for dealing with assaults on suspects or interviewees, the choice the show makes - to invert the races and genders, and then to belabour the serious response of the police to misconduct - does seem to miss the point of the recent conversations around these issues, and once again smacks of alibiing power rather concentrating on the seriously fucked-up aspects of pertinent real-life cases and issues.  When people are protesting white male cops piling onto Eric Garner and choking him to death, and then not being charged for it, Luke Cage looks like it is seriously missing the important point here, or - at maximum charitability - encoding it behind so many distorting layers that we can’t see it properly.  This looks like cowardice… or, more likely, a deeply mainstream set of underlying assumptions, in which it is taken for granted that authority is fundamentally open and trustworthy, poking through the surface air of ‘serious discussion of issues’.  Which, as I say, looks a lot like Law & Order’s ‘race episode’.

There’s a bit later in the series when, after he escapes police custody and goes on the run, Misty defends Luke by saying something like “He’s a black man accused of killing a cop, being chased by cops with special bullets, and you wonder why he’s running!”  But this really is just lip service.  First of all, it comes from a cop, thus positioning the cops as being able to understand a Black person’s fear of cops… which, in light of actual police views, and ‘Blue Lives Matter’, etc, seems misrepresentative.  Moreover, the cop who says it is herself an implicit misrepresentation of the actual composition of the police force and, relatedly, of the balance of racial and gender opportunities in society, and in powerful institutions.  Also, does a Black person have to be an entirely innocent hero in order to justify them not being shot out of hand?  Does a Black suspect, in short, have to actually be an "angel" in order to not warrant summary execution?

As we’ve seen, the police force chasing Luke have already been repeatedly positioned as being ultra-reasonable in their attitudes.  Even their anger is reasonable.  They’ve launched their aggressive manhunt only in response to what they think is Luke’s murder of a cop (as it happens, though it wasn’t Luke, the cop was murdered by a Black man… in fact, as noted, almost all the people killed in the entire series, Black or white, are killed by Black men).  Later, Luke will be treated with kid gloves by the police in connection not only with the murdered cop (which it is proved he didn’t do) but also in connection with the patrol cops he actually did hurl around like ninepins, while being filmed by a police dashcam.  Luke will, at one point, be permitted to escape by a Black uniformed cop.  At almost every stage, the police are represented as restrained, righteous, and reasonable - almost ridiculously reasonable - in their dealings with him.  Their fears are contextualised as justifiable, even in the context of the set-piece scene evidently designed to recall instances of ‘stop and search’ gone wrong. 

As a response to the urgent issue of police racism and police brutality, Luke Cage is frustrating in the way it sets itself the task of commenting from a position of solidarity with Black people, but then relentlessly sets about alibiing the police.  Ultimately, it sides with the status quo… and in more ways than the ones I’ve just outlined.

I’ve gone on longer than I expected to about this, and not covered all the issues I wanted to cover, so I may do more on Luke Cage another time.  We’ll see, based on how badly I’ve embarrassed myself this time.  Never have I been more awkwardly aware of how white we all are here… which is no bad thing (the awkward awareness, I mean).

I’d be genuinely very keen to hear people’s view on this, and especially to hear any factual stuff anyone has bearing on these issues. 

By the way: huge thanks go out to Max Curtis for helping me with the research for this.  He provided me with the shots of the tables you can see above.  (Any errors are all mine, of course.)

My Patreon, should you so wish.

 

Comments

Luca 5 months, 1 week ago

There is almost always a specific reactionary streak on the "street-level" superheroes, whoose activity mainly consists of beating up and/or killing "thugs" that are robbing some old lady's purse or something, and both Luke Cage and Daredevil are prime examples, at least on their Netflix shows. Daredevil is even more astounding, with the second series focusing on the moral dilemma of killing bad guys or just beating them up a lot (as if every single guy that gets hit in the head with a pipe would have survived). Than it just kind of throwa it all away, because the Punisher might be wrong in his actions but his intentions were good and WE NEED HEROES IN THESE DARK TIMES!!! Aren't Captain America and Iron Man enogh?

This also makes me more appreciative of the way Jessica Jones (mostly) avoids these pitfalls, probably due to the way she's not a vigilante. I guess superheroes are better when they are not really superheroes.

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Jack Graham 5 months, 1 week ago

Yeah, I should've lampshaded the whole superheroes-are-inherently-reactionary thing, alongside acknowledging that one of the white cops in the show is crooked.

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Miles Markus 5 months, 1 week ago

The crooked white cop actually plays into your approach really well, because he's crooked by virtue of reporting to, taking bribes from, etc. Cottonmouth, ie a black criminal gang leader. Corruption in the police force then is not seen as a *police* problem, but a problem of *criminals* infiltrating the police. Aesthetically, the white cop strangling a brown kid and then calmly finishing his falafel is tremendous, but, like Cage in a hoodie taking bullets from and beating up white cops, the context separates it from the real-life circumstances the image seems to be commenting on. He's not strangling the kid to protect his fellow officers or on orders from his captain, he's doing it to protect Cottonmouth. That's... not why white police officers murder brown kids.

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Wack'd 5 months, 1 week ago

Daredevil's scary in how eager it is to reenforce the status quo--Matt Murdock makes a lot of speeches about how important it is to make it LOOK like the police can do their jobs, even when it's clear he doesn't think they can.

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Lambda 5 months, 1 week ago

It's a particular manifestation of a very general problem that science fiction and fantasy (amongst other stuff) have in thinking that being able to forcefully impose your will on others is heroic.

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Christopher Brown 5 months, 1 week ago

Re: the superheroes-are-inherently-reactionary thing, I'd be very interested to hear/read your thoughts on the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel comics sometime - one of the few modern superhero narratives I've experienced which doesn't feel reactionary to me, but proactive in the Doctor-Who sense...though not for reasons I can necessarily articulate right now. Have you read any of them?

(If not, they're highly recommended, but I'm sure you must have a media-to-consume list a mile long...or kilometer, however you roll...)

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Christopher Brown 5 months, 1 week ago

For some reason, the site wouldn't let me make the above comment in reply to your reply to Luca...just fyi about recaptcha troubles :/

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Brian B. 5 months, 1 week ago

Excellent essay, but I think you're missing the strongest argument in favor of (over-)representing women and transfolk and minorities in positions of power on TV and in movies: they provide examples *for white men*.

Everything we've researched about hiring and promotion decisions show they're heavily image-based: an interviewer (and before that a mentor, a school counselor, a teacher...) has a mental image of what a doctor or a police detective or a cellist or a quarterback looks like. The job of onscreen affirmative action is to give people in power -- often still white and/or male -- more varied, more open-minded mental images. It's not condescending to those out of power; if anything, it's condescending to those in power, but only by treating them as the heuristic-using human beings we all are.

More dodgily, there's also merit in showing people and institutions being more progressive than they are: people are also more inclined to engage in bad behavior they see as common, *even if that behavior is condemned*. It's why it was disastrous when the U.S. National Parks briefly tried signs asking visitors not to vandalize the parks by proclaiming the behavior was too common: on a subconscious level visitors went "Oh, that's normal, is it?", and it became several times as common until the signs were removed. It's also the reason Trump's victory is scary even beyond its catastrophic policy implications: the very fact that he "won" immediately gave people prone to racist/ anti-Semitic views the sense that it's okay to express them aggressively now.

Obviously, to model better police behavior while claiming to discuss problematic real-life police issues creates large contradictions. But in and of itself, I'm all in favor of policewomen of color reporting to policewomen of color who report to policewomen of color in turn: if TV looks like that, decision-makers in real life have an easier time imagining the reality they help create in the same way.

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Jack Graham 5 months, 1 week ago

Thanks. That's interesting.

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