Shonda Rhimes snatched every wig, sew-in, French braid, and bantu knot in the world with last night’s episode of Scandal. It was uncomfortable. Someone clued me in that it would be an episode that I would not want to miss, but I wasn't quite prepared. At the close of the episode, I sat in solemn silence… All of my suppressed feelings – my Malcolm X diatribes, James Baldwin analyses, and Angela Davis fired-upness – had experienced a reawakening and were laid out on the front lawn to air dry... The episode, titled The Lawn Chair, was somber. There wasn't much humor to be drawn from the show, aside from Olivia pulling out her Beyoncé privileged black girl Precious Lord shaking hand. That’s when I knew it was serious.
The shows lead, Olivia Pope, was dispatched to do damage control and diffuse the situation after an unarmed black teen is gunned down by a white police officer. However, becoming wedged between a sketchy police department and Marcus Walker, a passionate and quick tongued communist activist, Olivia crosses the police tape, going from an advocate of the system to a voice in a crowd calling for justice.
Scandal fans are accustomed to squeamish moments. The show’s gut wrenching melodrama is littered with adulterous encounters, brutal crimes, espionage, dirty politics and depictions of kidnapping and torture. With last night’s show, Shonda Rhimes created new characters and revealed old wounds. Very real wounds. Through Scandal’s take on police brutality and its allusions to Ferguson, we saw ourselves. From the respectability politics of Olivia to the skewed logic of the police department, the show acted as a reflection of our own sins. The show featured several recognizable archetypes:
The Rabble Rouser – Marcus Walker, a communist activist took center stage when he ignited the crowd and showed solidarity with the father of the slain teen. Was he acting purely in solidarity or was he using Brandon Parker’s death as a platform? "You don't want justice. You want anger. You want outrage. You want retribution," Olivia shouted at the community activist whom she accused of having opportunistic intentions of attaching himself to a grieving father to further his own agenda. "You aren't auditioning to become America’s next best activist." The language is reminiscent of a passage in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. After the death of an unarmed black man, the protagonist leads protest demonstrations but questions the motives of those in attendance.
“And looking down I felt a lostness. Why were they here? Why had they found us? Because they knew Clifton? Or for the occasion his death gave them to express their protestations, a time and place to come together, to stand touching and sweating and breathing and looking in a common direction? Was either explanation adequate in itself? Did it signify love or politicized hate? And could politics ever be an expression of love?”
The Diffuser – Olivia Pope is a black woman, but she is a multilingual privileged black woman who affixes herself to the desires and dreams of white men and works closely with a Republican administration. Her career has been built on her ability to create personas, erect facades, and create convenient truths rather than seek justice. Her proverbial white hat conceals more than it transforms. She embodies the respectability which certain sects of the black community perpetuates – high priced miseducations, pressed hair, and beautiful Malbec stained rhetoric which asserts that everything would be fine if we pulled our pants up, spoke more eloquently, and put the guns down. These messages, emphasizing compliance, are complicit with white supremacy. They lay the responsibility of ending systemic oppression in the hands of the victims. We shout respectability from within our gated communities, aimed at people whom we have long since abandoned. This model has never worked, and Olivia finally saw that in this episode
The Overtly Racist Antagonizer – In the midst of peaceful protests, the police department expressed fears of a mob and riots, even though the crowd’s behavior did nothing to suggest the possibility of that. The only violent act had been committed by a white officer. Black outrage is often viewed as inherently criminal and threatening. Those who uphold white supremacy must cling to these ideas of the savageness of blackness, creating delusions of brewing rage beneath the surface of black emotional distress and pain. This black rage was the focus of the media reporting in the aftermath of Ferguson. “The fact that they are standing in the street saying things you don't like doesn't make them a mob,” she declares. “It makes them American!” Those who seek to continually oppress and exploit people of color cannot afford to embrace the idea that we are all American. In the same way that slaveholders needed to cling to the idea that blacks were less than human, modern purveyors of white supremacy must work equally hard to marginalize and criminalize black behavior.
The Covertly Racist Missionary – A striking moment of the episode came in the form of an explosively rabid monologue from Newton. His words stung, not only because they were racist, but because they echo the words of countless everyday white people. It is the most dangerous form of racism. Newton represents those who do not believe they are racist, but view people of color as a problem needing to be fixed or a dark spot needing to be blotted out. He ranted about his great sacrifices for the black community whose distrust of the police is seen as a lack of respect. “Those people have no respect,” he proclaimed. “They didn't teach him the right values. They didn't teach him respect.” It’s a narrative we are fed on a regular basis. As if we could avoid these fates if we are more respectable. The white savior complex riddled the cop’s speech. We hear it every day. If I may paraphrase, “I leave my white world, my safety, and my comfort for you people. I descend into the darkest parts of your jungles and protect you from your savage selves and this is how you repay me? Where is the respect? I have a divine order to lift you from your lowliness and civilize you. And yet you disobey me?” This mindset is a product of white supremacy and exists even in the most well-intentioned white people. From missionaries in Africa to white school teachers in the inner city, there is a pervasive idea that people of color are in need of civilizing.
Clarence Parker's words about his son were all too familiar. He wanted to get him to 18. He wanted to get him a diploma. "Don't let him end up dead or locked up." Those were the words and ideals which echoed in the chambers of a grieving father’s heart on last night’s episode of Scandal. It’s a common notion in communities of color whose sense of possibility has been diminished from dreams of thriving to basic hopes of survival. The day to day experience of being black is wrapped in trauma. Olivia, on the heels of being rescued from her own kidnapping and brush with death, explains to Attorney General David Rosen, “I lived in complete fear. Imagine living like that every single day your life." That trauma is ingrained in our lives, and not limited to physical violence. The tiny micro-aggressions are equally destructive to the black psyche.
Scandal's episode was moving, but it was steeped in fantasy. There is no magical team of gladiators in real life. We witnessed the arrest of a white cop for the death of an unarmed black teen within days of the murder (although it’s important to note that his charges were due to conspiracy and tampering with evidence rather than being connected to the actual shooting of the teen). That outcome is purely fiction, as we have seen the opposite with real life cases such as Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley Jones, and countless others. Only on television will we see the arrest of a white cop for the murder of a black teen. Shonda Rhimes addressed the hopeful outcome in her own tweets.
Olivia’s voice of reason is not present in real life in the form of a polished PR figure, but those calls for justice rest in the hands of everyday people. If anyone is a team of gladiators, it is the courageous young organizers and the voices of blacks on social media. Without the keystrokes and actions of the latter, many of the high profile cases such as Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown would have never garnered significant media coverage. The latest episode of Scandal showed themes couched in fiction but issues which are very real. The outrage is real. The mourning is real. The injustice is real. We can only hope for a time when the outcome of the show – accountability, truth, and justice – is also reflected in reality.
Stand up. Fight back. No more black [folks] under attack.