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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38 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

  5. Racism is a touchy subject in the United States. We are supposed to be the most free country in the world and yet we still have oppressed peoples. And it’s not just people of color but people who are different in any kind of way. Even if a person is a white upperclass male, if he is weird and escentric, people will have something to say about it. But I do not think racism is engrained into our DNA as Americans. We aren’t born aware of color or difference of any kind. We are molded into noticing those differences. Racism is constructed from the society we live in. And unfortunately, is probably more common in the south than in the north. And I believe Education has a lot to do with that. People who are cultured and educated tend to be more open minded and more willing to learn and understand other people’s perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Again, I agree with Stephanie in the idea that racism is something that is taught to people through their parents or schooling. No one is born hating a person because of the color of their skin, but once people have grown up a little and either see that they are privileged or not, racism can begin to develop more. How a child is raised also effects this very much, because if a child is raised in a liberal household by parents who are open and accepting, they will not grow up to hate a person of a difficult color or any other difference they may have.

      Liked by 2 people

    • While we’re not “born” being racist, we learn racism and sexism etc during our first weeks of life. The “historical unconscious” is a powerful force!


  6. Reading your explanation on why Annaliese Keatings statement was inaccurate made a lot of sense. America’s DNA would be much more complicated than just racism. You would need the imperialism, white supremacists, capitalism, patriarchy, sexism, racism, and cisthesim in the mix. By only taalking about one issue will not help tackling the much bigger problem there is. By recognizing these things exist is the first step towards being able to do something about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I agree with this quote from the episode. I come from an cultured background and with this I have had the privilege to witness Jim Crow often. An example, how is it that my family functions do not get shut down but the other Hispanics in the neighboring homes do? Why does the black population in my community not receive the same ditch cutting service as we do? We are a white passing Latino family and we see and experience the other side of these horrible injustices. We choose to speak up, we choose to write our county officials, we choose to attend city council meetings to reconcile for the inadequate treatment of our neighbors. This is the way things will change is if you TALK about them. -Phoebe Caudill

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  8. I agree that saying that racism is like DNA is a dangerous statement to make, we don’t want to give people some sort of essentialism escape. Racism is not something that we are born with it is something that is learned and then implemented systematically. And because it is not a factor we are born with we must hold everyone accountable rather than forgive them on the basis that is just how they are. especially now that many people have been given this voice to come out with ideas they have otherwise kept quite about.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. To me you kind of “All Lives Mattered” Racism in this post. I do not watch the show but I’m assuming the case was about racism. So as anyone else would do, she focused on the reoccurring problem at hand not ignoring other oppressions rooted in the DNA of the U.S. I believe in fact racism is built into the DNA of the United States. It won’t go anywhere until we can find away to change it. Science is about a bunch of experiments and theories and things tested over and over. A lot of these theories that stand for long periods of time are over turned and changed as science gets more resources and a new set of eyes to see something that the other person has missed. Same with the theory that you can’t change DNA which I’m relating to racism. So again I believe racism is rooted into the DNA of the U.S. however I’m not saying it can’t be “mutated” or altered or even completely discontinued eventually.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What I believe Dr Pegoda was trying to iterate was that racism isn’t the only form of discrimination that is rooted in America’s DNA, though it plays a huge role. For example, you’ll notice that many of the African Americans that were wrongfully shot by police also came from low-income areas. It is clearly evident that race was, and still is, a defining factor in these instances. However if the man who was shot 20 times in his backyard had been living in a mansion, could that have lowered his chance of being wrongfully shot and killed? While there is no way to really know, perhaps that is question that was meant to be raised when going through this article.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, yes, Aziz. Intersectionality matters. Thinking more intersectionally was one of my “New Years goals” for the year.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you post. Dr. Pegoda seems to be essentially taking the light away from the issue of racism to say that the rest of minorities matter as well, and though it’s true that racism is not alone in making the corrupt foundation of the United States, to say that it is an incorrect statement that racism is not ingrained into the DNA of the United States is also false. It is a contributor and to eventually alter the ways minorities are treated in this country, we have to address the problem piece by piece rather than drawing light on all the of issues this society is too proud to admit fault.

      Liked by 2 people

    • This pushback is great and interesting! I’ve written many articles very specifically in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

      But let me continue the pushback: why can’t the statement in question, as I argue, be both accurate and inaccurate?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Just wanted to specifically state here (as I have elsewhere many times) that racism is absolutely built into every aspect of the nation. The “sugar metaphor” mentioned in my original post is exactly this.

      It goes as follows:

      “If you’re an Americanist historian, you better also consider yourself a historian of race. There’s nothing in this country’s history that doesn’t lead back to racism. To paraphrase a now-famous metaphor, racism is the sugar in the American cake. Sure, the cake has other ingredients, but once the thing is mixed and baked, you’re never going to be able to take a bite that is sugar-free. Nods to racism (or any sort of oppression) don’t count. We need a profession-wide, systemic understanding of what racism is, where it comes from, and how it morphs and changes to stay alive. That’s the only way we’re going to learn to win the fight against it”

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Fist and foremost, I love How To Get Away With Murder!!! Anyways, the line “Racism is built into the DNA of America” is such a powerful and controversial statement. As people do not want to face the dark times of oppression and social injustices that has occurred in this country. In order to better society, awareness of these mistreatment of the oppressed is needed. I do agree with you that the show mainly focuses on the the racism aspect in the formation of the essentialist idea that racism is built in the DNA of America. With racism being on aspect of America’s history, it lacks to represent the others that have been mistreated by the government. As you mentioned earlier the DNA of America truest consist of other issues such as “imperialism, white supremacy and racism, capitalism, cishetism, and patriarchy and sexism” so by the show focusing on the issue of just racism as the the main problem with the formation of the US, it takes away from the struggle that many others have faced in our nations past.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Unfortunately I haven’t seen How to get away with Murder, but this statement definitely gave me a reason to. Although we all seem to be taken away strongly by recommend the line, Racism is built into the DNA of America, I on the other hand am more concerned with the last line, “Jim Crow is alive and kicking”. It literally gave me shivers to just to even think about this. DNA is a dynamic and adaptable molecule. As such, the nucleotide sequences found within it are subject to change as the result of a phenomenon called mutation. Depending on how a particular mutation modifies an organism’s genetic makeup , but the bigger question lies how we change if Jim Crow is very much alive and kicking?
    This is not the America we want or we want our future generations to grow in. One must not forget that Racism is like a contagious disease which spreads quicker then we can contain it. A world full of Racism , a future none of us desire….
    Shazia F.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I have never seen the show, yet I agree with what Viola is saying here. Racism is something that was socially constructed. Instead of helping and supporting each other like we should we are turning on each other and tearing each other apart. Some races get special privileges compared to others and I don’t think thats right. I think we could make the world a better place and work to end racism if we all work together and support one another.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. To put an idea out here for others to comment on: if my memory serves correctly, the Africans who were brought over in the slave trade were being captured by Europeans/Americans AND being sold by their own tribes, as slavery was highly prevalent in African culture. While obviously racism is a huge issue in America, can the cause of racism be traced back to a lust/need for power that was executed by white Europeans/Americans some two centuries ago? For example, what if the triangular slave trade from Europe/Africa/America never happened, but the slavery taking place in Africa continued, and Africa became prosperous because of a slave trade that took advantage of those enslaved workers, would we be viewing African cultures as being systematically racist like in the US?

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I’m very glad you mentioned that it isn’t just racism that is now an issue. The first person I thought of when I read the quote about America’s broken justice system was Steven Avery of the gut-wrenching series, “Making a Murderer.” The show follows the story of a man who was framed for a murderer he didn’t commit. In the show, you can see how law enforcement exploited the fact that he had an IQ low enough to be considered “mentally unfit” to testify on his own behalf. While that is only the tip of the iceberg of what the Avery family is enduring till this day, it is a testament to the amount of “-isms” that have had a parasitic relationship with America’s justice and how it has affected the lives of countless innocent human beings. Lastly, you made mention that oppression and privilege can “only be understood when recognizing the intersection.” The Avery’s came from an underprivileged background and this may have also played a role in his wrongful conviction.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I haven’t heard about the show until I read this blog! I hope I will have time to watch this show since it sounds pretty interesting to me. I like the way how you explain the term “DNA”. I didn’t think about how it relates to “biological” roots. Indeed, I haven’t explored the culture, society, and history of America in particular. Therefore, I couldn’t give any statement about any issues that are going on such as racism. However, before I entered the country, I have heard a lot of “warning” from my friends and relatives who already have lived in the U.S. for years about the racist, murder, and other kinds of discriminations are going on around the country. So, even though I have never heard about this statement and watched the show, I was not that surprised when I first read it. I know that not everyone is racist or dangerous or should be aware of, but the isssues are still there and haven’t completely disappeared!

    Thank you Dr. Pegoda for the new information! And again I love the way you explain the term “DNA” so much since metaphor is really my type of interest.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. This discussion has exploded! You all make really good points. Using the word DNA does imply basic biology, but the word is used so loosely today that it can also be referring to something else. Stephanie and others did tell us that we are not born hating, which tells us that our DNA does not predict hatred. However, I learned from what happened to me as a child, that the hatred my siblings had toward me was automatic, reflexive, as if they were born with it. But what happens very early in childhood, long before we would even be aware of the forces on us at that time, can cause us to hate. Just the observation of adults acting slight differently toward a person triggers the thought by the child that, even though this person doesn’t appear to show any behavior that would call for the hatred shown by their parent(s), there has to be a good reason. You accept you do not know as much as your parents or older siblings and that they are a guide for you.

    Furthermore, no child wants to experience the hatred the parent shows toward another person, so the child learns very early that to maintain safety from that hatred, you have to curry the favor of the parent, which may mean showing similar hatred. This decision does not need to be made fully consciously, since a child from 0-3 years still has a lot of brain development occurring, and such complex thought is not possible until after that massive change has finished. So any behavior the child adopts is purely reflexive. They continue it into adulthood because it does not get corrected by the parents, sometimes because the parents feel guilty that they taught that behavior, or sometimes because the parent also learned it as a very early reflex.

    Reflexive behavior is just that, it forms simple pathways in the brainstem and doesn’t have to even notify the conscious brain of anything. We all have such reflexive behavior about something. We will continue to be totally unaware of the assumptions we make until someone we know and respect points out our behavior. When I pointed out to my sister that she was attacking me when we were with my siblings at lunch one day on the day we buried our mother, she was totally surprised that she did. However, due to our conversation about my experiences the night before, she believed me and it stopped that day. The communication of the concept of “reflex” was the key to achieving this cessation because it shows no bad feeling toward the person we tell that to, depending upon the situation and how well we know the person.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. The idea that the invocation of DNA in the statement relieves viewers from a duty to act, and thereby allows them to assuage their guilt and continue to enjoy a show, is profound. The phrase, “in our DNA,” is one we are accustomed to hearing and brings about immediate associations with something that is inevitable, rigid, and unchangeable. Essentialism is a dangerous idea. I need to be extra weary of cliches and oft-repeated phrases as they can invoke essentialism and other dangerous ideas so subtly. -Jake Hayes

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I have to agree but do not think that we go far enough in identifying the institutions that play into these many forms of oppression. Popular culture is something all to often not mentioned as an agent of these oppressions, institutions like Hollywood and power it holds over the writing of this DNA seems to me as something that is in need of more attention. I consume tons of media (video, audio, & imagery) and so I can say with much confidence that this institution is very guilty of perpetuating all and more of these “ism’s” and have a much greater influence on the fabric of the nations youths.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Coming back to the “reflex behavior” that racism comes from, the fact that such thinking is reflexive can explain why people have said they don’t remember the incident referred to by the accuser to the perpetrator. This fits in with how for so long women were/and still are not believed when they they accuse a person of sexual harassment/abuse. The person responsible for the attack/abuse/harassment was reflexively applying what he had learned, and had never had to reflect on such behavior since learning to use it. One can argue that this is the reason why so many men/white people do not take part in the discussions that the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have provoked. They not only need leadership, they need to understand why what they thought were “natural” feelings are not acceptable to express today.

    If they search for justification of their own behavior, they will use what others have mentioned in the past. In other words, what all have consciously thought, analyzed and said, using our neocortex. It is a categorization practice, which as I have mentioned in previous posts, is built into our brains. Categorization speeds nerve transmission and thus, action upon perception. Our brains are built toward doing this. If we did not have this adaptation, our social interactions would hardly be classified as fluid, and certainly would be detrimental toward the foundation of what is the single-most important part of human evolution. Understanding this behavior rests on using both unconscious and conscious parts of our brain, which tells us that using mindfulness is how we achieve it. But, in humans, mindfulness has to be practiced. Mindfulness means that we bring unconscious thoughts/concepts into the conscious brain, or attention centers.

    Doing this starts the discussion that most of us need to do before we can change anything. However, as I said before, categorization will always be there. So we learn how to re-categorize what we used to do unconsciously. That is why such conversations are often so painful that there is tremendous resistance toward this change. For many, the racism has penetrated so much of their personal culture that changing what they think about those categories would cause their total world to fall apart. The brain is not going to allow self-destruction if it can. I realized this about my siblings. If they had to face what mom did to me and to them, their world would fall apart. So they will never come to accept what I say, but just “tolerate” my saying it. Doing that, they will never actually come to accept me as a member of the family. This analogy clearly applies to the this discussion of racism as being built into our DNA.

    Liked by 1 person


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