It feels like I receive at least one email a week from a pissed-off white male. I feel like everywhere I look there is some white person whining, complaining, playing the “victim” card, and moaning about how difficult things are for a white person nowadays. I’m telling you, if white males have to live under a non-white male president for another four years, Ted Nugent is going to start writing spirituals.
Sometimes I respond to these “white plight” emails. Sometimes I get into passionate debates with people. Never do I sit back and say, “Man, white men really are getting screwed on this issue. White power!” I mean, at the end of the day the playing field still ridiculously favors white males. Sometimes white men can’t see it, just like sometimes you can’t tell that the Earth is curved when you’re standing on the ground. But if you look up — and do some math — it’s pretty obvious we live on a sphere, and it’s pretty obvious we live in a society that favors white males.
But I am… open-minded. And my mind was blown wide open when I read a blog post on Just Enrichment about the paucity of white male judges as fictional characters. Without having the resources to do a full-scale survey of every movie or television character in the past twenty years, this guy makes a compelling point that white males are disfavored when it comes to portraying impartial justice.
And I think this guy — Adam Chandler, a 3L at Yale Law School — is absolutely right….
The core of Chandler’s argument is simple. He uses anecdotal evidence, but that’s probably because it’s pretty hard to get a grant to study “white male representations in legal dramas and comedy.”
[W]hen I saw the films The Lincoln Lawyer and Win Win in quick succession, I noticed an interesting commonality: the judges in both movies were played by African-American actors.
I started to rack my brain to remember other depictions of judges on television and in movies, and I turned to IMDB for assistance. Interestingly, of the examples I came up with, a white male judge has been a considerable rarity in recent movies and television shows—at a time when white male judges continue to dominate the American judiciary.
He lists a bunch of examples, though notably he excludes Law & Order, feeling that the results there would simply overpower analysis of anything else. I agree with that call, but also because everybody of every race ever has been on Law & Order, probably in proportion to the general diversity of the “actor” population.
My favorite examples are from the real-life, “reality courtroom” TV shows:
Not a single one on the air today is hosted by a white man. We’ve got Judge Joe Brown, Judge Judy, Judge Greg Mathis, Judge Hatchett, and Judge Lynn Toler (Divorce Court). And though the canonical daytime court show, The People’s Court, was presided over by three white men in the past (Judges Wapner, Koch, and Scheindlin), it has been the domain of a Cuban-American woman, Marilyn Milian, since 2001.
I’ve independently noticed this as well. If you look at how those God-awful shows work, it’s always based on the judges giving the people who appear before them “sass,” and “backtalk,” and “common sense,” solutions. Could you imagine putting a “regular” judge on the air (white or black, male or female) on the air in this environment? Of course not. You need some kind of tortured stereotype. I’m telling you, if they put a white judge on one of these judge shows in the current environment, it’d be some “hillbilly” stereotype — Farm Justice with Judge Cletus, or Judge Billy Joe on Court U.S.A. (I do NOT waive my intellectual property rights in those ideas, Discovery Channel.)
That’s not just “reverse racist” (which is a stupid way of saying racist towards white people), but it’s also regular old racist, racist too. Not every minority person has “street sense.” Not every black man would chew your ass out for insubordination if he was your police chief. Not every black woman is an overweight person who can dispense wisdom while making pancakes. I swear, reality television in all of its forms is the worst thing to happen to America since 1812.
In any event, obviously art is not imitating life here:
Now contrast Hollywood’s image of the judiciary with the actual demographics. The federal judiciary remains heavily dominated by white males, according to a 2009 report of the Brookings Institution. As of August 2009, 70 percent of federal judges were white men, 15 percent were white women, 10 percent were minority (African-American and Hispanic) men, and 3 percent were minority women. In the California state court system, as of December 2010, 69 percent of judges are male, and 72 percent are white. And one study of state court trial judges, which is the type of judge most often depicted in entertainment, found that, in 2004, 78.5 percent were male.
I won’t pretend that my methods are exhaustive, but the results suggest that Hollywood creates a more diverse image of the American judiciary than is reflected on the bench.
I’ll take it one step farther: it’s not only that Hollywood is creating a more diverse picture of justice (which I suppose could be laudable in the aspirational Hollywood sense), but when white males do feature as judges, it seems like they’re playing a disproportionate percentage of the bad judges. Think about it this way — and screw it, I’m using my Law & Order knowledge on this one — whenever a plot line calls for the judge to be corrupt, or a sexist, or a racist, or too old to know the law anymore, isn’t it always a white male judge? You never see a black female judge who is so old as to be incompetent. You never see a black male judge who tries to have sex with the attractive female defense attorney. Those plot lines always go to the white male judge.
[T]here may be another reason besides the aspirations and moral-messaging of the filmmakers. It is true of most of the examples listed above that the judge roles were bit parts. By casting nonwhite actors and women in the judge roles, the directors may simply be trying to obscure the homogeneity of their principal casts by adding a dose of diversity. That won’t be true in every example, for not every cast mentioned above is predominated by white males, but enough are to make this at least a plausible explanation in some cases.
I think that’s part of the reason. But I think there’s something more sinister at work here (though, in fairness, I think there’s something more sinister at work when David Wright breaks his back and the Mets don’t figure it out for a month). Filmmakers and producers believe the viewing audience doesn’t view white males as “just” anymore. They don’t view them as “fair,” or “impartial.” It’s like people have seen To Kill A Mockingbird enough times that there’s just no sense that a white judge could impartially preside over the trial of any kind of minority defendant. Ironically, making the judge a woman or a minority takes race off the table. You only make the judge a white male if you want to give yourself a potential prejudicial subplot.
Oh sure, you still want the white guy (or the Jewish guy) to be your lawyer — zealously advocating for whatever slanted view of the world benefits you. It’s not like there’s an abundance of minority or female lawyers on these shows. But when it comes down to an impartial arbiter, producers are telling us that white males no longer look the part. It’s like walking up to a blackjack table, getting a good vibe from the gregarious white male dealer, winning a bunch of money, and then fleeing the table when the austere, Asian female “closer” shows up, doesn’t speak a ton of English, and just deals the cards. The Asian lady is the robotic one; the white dealer was the one with the postive agenda.
Now, I think producers are wrong about the viewing public. I don’t think any face conveys more “trustworthiness” than any other face. I think producers are… discriminating against white males on this front. I think because a few white male judges have proven themselves to be unfair or prejudiced, they are all getting painted with the same “potentially shady” brush when it comes to fiction.
I guess I think a wise white man, with the richness of his experiences, would more often than not reach a better fictional conclusion than a random minority character written by a white writer who hasn’t lived that life.
The Camera Adds Ten Pounds Diversity to the Bench [Just Enrichment]