Shondaland on Law and Order (and Trump’s America) in ‘For The People’
We are so scared of people we transfigure them into numbers to displace the guilt of our phobophobia—the fear of our fears.
by Nathaniel Phillips
This essay contains spoilers for Shonda Rhimes’ For The People.
A whistleblower is hunted by the US government for stealing highly sensitive information about the deportation of undocumented immigrants—medical records that should’ve been confidential and beyond the purview of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Her lawyer flips the script on the government by going to the press, illuminating the defendant as “a hero, not a criminal.” The whistleblower doesn’t want to make a deal or be a hero. She only wants to make a difference and “not negotiate away [her] soul with the government to make that difference.”
For the People premiered this spring to give us respite from a news cycle of doom dominated by bickering adults trying to run a country. Rhimes herself and Shondaland producers, in typical high-drama flashiness that so many have come to love, hate, and get-headaches-over-but-keep-watching, presents a series that audiences can follow to see the true insidiousness of our justice system.
Black Codes in 2018
In the sentencing of a teenage boy who pleads guilty to firearm possession, the judge informs his defense lawyer that she will use a risk assessment software called EVALUATE in her determination.
The defendant only had the gun because gang members passed it to him. Concerned that pleading guilty will put him away for too long and leave his mom and brother alone, his lawyer challenges the judge on the use of “proprietary” algorithms because neither she nor her client have any idea of the factors involved. The judge grants a one week extension before her final ruling.
His lawyer is a Black woman, a self-described “idealistic public defender” taking inspiration from women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. She feels the odd one out in her family of math nerds, but she needs her brother-mathematician to help eviscerate the algorithms and free her client from arbitrary (in)justice.
This is based on a real technology called COMPAS, used by courts and district attorney offices nationwide. It makes their jobs impersonal, less thorough, and highly unscrupulous. The practice has become more widely covered in a gambit of outlets like The New York Times, Newsweek, critical think-tank Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the non-profit journal The Marshall Project that curates a comprehensive list of pieces on the subject.
“Why are the rules more important than the people they’re supposed to protect?”
For The People take a hyper-critical look at our courts and justice system, inviting Shondaland audiences, new and old, to consider the current lapse of national consciousness. The way we right wrongs and perceive justice and liberty is and has always been malignantly partial at best, and criminal at worst.
Our system is based on common law which “emerged in England during the Middle Ages and was applied within British colonies across continents”—most notably the 13 colonies of New England, A.K.A. Amerikkka. So it was common to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) world and forced upon others.
As a country of immigrats and stolen people built on the soil belonging to people who were already here, it shouldn’t be easy to devise a legal system to fit an inherently heterogeneous nation. There were ways of finding justice before and after legalistic European substandards invaded the continent, just as there are ways of doing justice in all the countries of the Earth from which US residents come.
Trump has bombastically overstated how there is nothing more to urban America and inner cities than crime, gangs, and Black people. The algorithms of programs like COMPAS have a similarly dystopian coding.
Distance measured in street blocks and backgrounds by skin color meter out benign differentials to (mis)account risk in a misguided pursuit of justice for a country manic in its self-inducing terror. We are so scared of people we transfigure them into numbers to displace the guilt of our phobophobia—the fear of our fears.
Both of the defendants in this particular episode of For The People are heroes to someone. Even so, the “assessment” of the young boy prejudices him as deserving of a harsher sentence based on nothing more than the neighborhood where he lives and the color of his skin.
“Algorithms cant factor for slavery, Jim Crow, Reaganomics, a failed war on drugs,” his lawyer exasperatedly retorts to her boss as she gets pushback about disagreeing with the judge.
When are Black people painted as heroes? What superhuman feat, besides getting up everyday, does a Black person in this country have to accomplish? Become the 1st Black President? (Done). The first rapper to win a Pulitzer? (All hail sir Kendrick).
James Shaw Jr. recently prevented a white terrorist from shooting up more lives at a Waffle House. He doesn’t call himself a hero, though. Nor does the White House.
Our true heroism has been in holding up a country never built for us. One that may never present us the hero’s medals we deserve—whether in the form of reparations, a president who can be unrestrained in his Blackness, or little Black boys and girls who are given more than a flashing second to be seen as fully human before a policeman guns them down playing in the park outside their homes. R.I.P.
“You have to be realistic,” the boss says to the lawyer who’s fighting to keep another Black boy free from racist sentencing. Like the system tells us in real life. When the fledgling public defender responds (as a Black woman can) with the realities of and, more importantly, the aspirations of people denied by the system, her boss finally understands.
“Good. Fight the system.”
Realism can’t save us. But dreams can.
The United States is fantasized as “The Great Experiment” because it sounds better than “The Great Destroyer.” The experiment was designed to fail everyone who was kept out of the lab.
Oppressed people design better worlds for themselves, like the maroon societies, indentured whites, and indigenous who experimented and lived (more) egalitarian societies with solidarity and mutual-survival economies. The answers are already out there in our collective dreams that we bring again and again and again to reality.
To do something about modern “Black Codes” and racist computer programming, find out if your county courts and law enforcement agencies pay to use these technologies.
If yes, go off on em’! If not, pressure them to commit to never purchasing these technologies because they will not your community safer.
Know who your District Attorney is and hold them accountable, and for more information, Google: Racist Public Safety Assessments.
Nathaniel Phillipps grew up 9 miles from the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, the Mississippi of the West and “New Jim Crow” state. An initial BYP100 participant in 2013 and BYP100 New York City chapter member, he graduated Very Miseducated from The New School in NYC to do research, and Blacker-and-Better from being poor and anxious in the USA and around the world to (pre)serve Black lives.