By Ellen Bravo
American culture has two ways of erasing white supremacy. The first declares that we are post-racial: Blacks can become president, news anchors, billionaires; racism happened in another era; slavery and Selma are history. No problem, no solution needed. All lives matter. The second acknowledges racial prejudice but declares that all groups have it (see, for example, the movie Crash) – yes, bias is harmful but it’s a problem everyone has to grapple with. The solution is education and individual change. All hate matters.
The fourth and latest season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black takes a very different view by not only insisting that Black Lives (and those of all people of color) matter, but connecting the issue of race with the reality of institutional power. It embodies a key lesson for white progressives who argue that class is the central problem and addressing economic inequality will make racism fade away; or those who write off poor and working class whites as equally privileged as white people in positions of power. In fact, racist brutality shores up a system that hurts many white people, too. They suffer to a lesser extent than the people of color around them – racism deepens exploitation and adds vicious brutality and pervasive forms of discrimination — but suffer they will unless all groups band together for change.
Two characters set the frame in the first episode, after some Black inmates express slurs toward a new group of Dominican prisoners and hear accusations of racism.
“Black people can’t be racist,” says former track star Janae. “We have no power.”
Black Cindy disagrees: “I’m gonna have to call bullshit on that… We sure as shit can be racist as everybody else, because this is America. Land of the free, home of the racist.” But the crux of her denial reveals Janae’s truth: “Look, we may not be able to act on our racism, like, put people in a ghetto, send them to shitty schools…-kill ’em in the back of police vans.”
The rest of the season lays out what it means when those in power can and do act on their racism – need to, in fact, in order to hold on to their power.
The structure of white supremacy on steroids in the recently privatized prison by Management and Correction Corporation (MCC), where a woman executive named Linda points out the stakes for those in charge: “Our contract with the feds is giving us $30 grand per head. We can’t fuck up this gorgeous deal Uncle Sam is giving us.” For Linda: “immigration violations are the next gold mine.” (“What was the last gold mine?” warden Caputo asks. “The war on drugs, I guess.”)
If they frame a work program as education, the execs don’t even have to pay the usual eleven cents an hour. To curb potential rebellions by the inmates (as one guard notes, “If they decided to band together, they could overpower us,”) top management calls in a force of military corrections officers.
Aiding their task are the existing divisions and hostility among the prisoners along racial, ethnic and religious lines. Soso, who’s half-Japanese and half-Scottish, assumes her Black girlfriend Poussey is the daughter of a crack whore, even though Poussey speaks three languages. Soso tries to explain: “I watched the Wire a lot. I made assumptions.” Adding fuel to the fire is the addition of a new group of white prisoners led by two skinheads.
The show does a good job of showing a spectrum of white supremacist views, from these Nazi sympathizers whose goal is to stir up racial animosity to a Martha Stewart-like celebrity jailed for tax fraud who explains away a racist puppet show she created decades earlier by saying, “I give substantial donations to inner-city programs. I have countless Black people in my employ. I think it’s a crime the way people take things out of context.” When a few Black prisoners concoct a plan to get a photo of this woman, Judy King, and sell it to paparazzi’s, Judy assumes that the group wants to attack her for that puppet show. Poussey tells her, “It ever occur to you that it’s racist to assume Black people are going to beat you up for being racist?”
But the most eye-opening revelations of white supremacy and power come through the characters of Piper, the suburban white woman whose experiences the series originally centered on, and of warden Caputo. Piper uses her whiteness and the backing of the white supremacists to get Piscatella, the head of the guards, to create an anti-gang “task force” targeting the new Dominican prisoners. The guards use this pretext to launch racial profiling stop-and-frisk’s that turn into blatant sexual assaults. Piper sets up the leader of the Dominicans and is shocked when she learns the woman gets a much harsher punishment than Piper intended. “I didn’t know it would get this big,” Piper tells Nichols, who has recently returned from a maximum security prison. “It’s not what it looks like.”
“Sometimes what it looks like is all anybody can see,” Nichols replies. Intent doesn’t lessen the impact of racist acts.
Caputo is similarly uneasy with the outright racism and militarism of MCC. The warden wants to make the prisoners’ lives “feel full” by giving them classes that can lead to jobs when they get out – the barriers ex-prisoners face is a major theme of the series. He sees that the vocational classes MCC sets up are actually “a chain gang.” He tries to warn a young guard, Bayley, to get out: “This place crushes anything good. Working here changes who you are.” And when that guard causes the death of Poussey, a widely loved inmate, in response to orders from Piscatella, Caputo refuses to follow MCC’s instructions to protect shareholders by characterizing Bayley as a low-life villain.
But in protecting this young white man, Caputo releases him from any accountability and forgets all about the young Black woman Bayley has killed. As Poussey’s close friend Taystee reminds us, he doesn’t even say her name.
White viewers, however, will walk away knowing that woman’s name, and more. If they’re paying attention, they’ll be closer to realizing that none of us can win without defeating white supremacy.