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


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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9 replies

  1. You have undergone some more perspective expansion here. Maybe we need to be reminded as to how pervasive what some would call “racism” is in the US. So I do not have a lot of beef with what Shonda Rhimes says. However, with perspective, intersectionality does loom as a bigger problem. I suspect that practice with developing perspective is necessary to reap its benefits as we get older. Maybe that practice can come a lot earlier than we usually achieve when taking some college courses. Maybe practice with it should be expanded to all college course, even the so-called “fact-based” STEM courses. They just need a model for achieving perspective when it comes to coding, physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering concepts.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My model has been to relate the material to other courses in other disciplines. The usual model most use is to mention past history of science, but that can get relegated to the archane too easily by the student. I did that when I was a student. I ask the students to do this relationship forming in discussion groups and on open-ended short answer test questions. They also do it if they have to do a group project of some kind. The problem is that most science courses depend so heavily on the lecture that group work is only used in lab courses, and even that has little devoted to developing associations in the brain. I see more flexibility taught in K-12 classes than in the university!

    When learning to code or program, you look for many ways to achieve the same result, including the ones where you have to go through many more steps to do it. Some of those methods refer to ways that were done in other, older computer languages, e.g. Fortran and Basic or Pascal. By looking for these ways, we discover not only what we have gained by the simplicity of C++ or Python, but also what we lost in ability that now has to be made up for in other ways, like changes in hardware configuation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • On the note of C++, I took a semester-long college course in how to use, write, and understand C++. It really was a “simple” computer language. I had fun writing basic computer programs, but it did get really complicated quickly. There was a brief period when I thought about majoring in computer programming.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. My, you two are good for interesting conversation!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. And since you and I often think alike, I enjoy myself too.

    Liked by 2 people


  1. Even in the so-called freeworld countries racism exist | From guestwriters

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