Racism, History, and How To Get Away With Murder’s Bold Statement

On the most recent episode of How To Get Away With Murder, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) addresses the Supreme Court and says:

….Racism is built into the DNA of America. And as long as we turn a blind eye to the pain of those suffering under its oppression, we will never escape those origins. The only safeguard people of Color have is the right to a defense, and we won’t even give them that. Which means that the promise of civil rights has never been fulfilled. Due to the failure of our justice system, our public defense system in particular, Jim Crow is alive and kicking….

I think we need to pause and realize how profound such a proclamation is, especially during the era of Trumpism. It’s brave. It’s historical. It’s important. It’s queer in its subversion of the normative. 

It gives new meaning to “how to get away with murder.” All of the episodes focus on corruption and loopholes as tickets to permissible murder, but recent ones address real-life systemic racism in unparalleled ways when it comes to Black people and their treatment by the State.

And when thinking about the current inhumane system of plea bargains, “how to get away with murder” is also a metaphor for the millions of people who have been cheated. 

While Annalise Keating’s statement–“Racism is built into the DNA of America”–is powerful, inaccurate is also a necessary descriptor.  A few years ago, I would have expressed disbelief and shock at the sight of someone applying “inaccurate” to such a public statement connecting history, racism and discrimination, and the foundations of the United States. I am even still fond of the sugar and cake metaphor applied to the United States. But, here we are. And my increased appreciate for and understanding of intersectionality is what makes Annalise’s comments problematic.

(You were warned that my ideas could and would change over the evolution of this blog!)

In sum, it’s not just racism. It’s imperialism, white supremacy and racism, capitalism, cishetism, and patriarchy and sexism. Singular attacks/emphasis on racism don’t go far enough, especially, when understanding “the DNA” of the United States.

Oppression and privilege can only be properly understood when recognizing the intersectional. 

The invocation of DNA in How To Get Away With Murder potentially adds components of biological essentialism to its assessment of history and critique of discrimination–as if to ignore the social constructions involved, as well as society’s construction of historical narratives. “Biological” roots of racism suggest changes are even harder to make–thus offering a critique but undermining it and dismissing it (to keep audiences) because such racism is rooted in governing forces beyond human control and thus nothing to worry about or (especially for some religious people) change. 

How To Get Away With Murder‘s subsequent narratives will be interesting because its increasing focus racism will certainly alienate. That the current system called the New Jim Crow by Professor Michelle Alexander and others is receiving such constant attention in this television show indicates that enough people are aware and are concerned to widen the conversation and maybe work toward some kind of change, eventually. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda