“Making of A Murderer” And The Racial Empathy Gap

January 11, 2016  |  

Photo Credit: IndieWire.com

Photo Credit: Netflix

So I’ve been checking out episodes of “Making of A Murderer” on Netflix because the internet told me I should watch it..

It’s not that I’m bored, more annoyed.

First, I don’t know if I needed all of those episodes to tell me something I basically figured out in the first two: there were some serious and possible errors committed in the cases of Steve Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who have been convicted in the rape and murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach in 2005.

In short, two episodes would have suffice.

Not to mention that I have seen this story before.

I’ve seen it in the case of Emmett Till.

I’ve seen it in the cases of the Central Park Five.

And I’ve seen this in the most recent case of Kenneth Clair, the man who was convicted of capital murder for the 1984 killing of Santa Ana nanny in spite of new DNA evidence, which might suggest otherwise (since the release of this new evidence, Clair’s case has since been commuted to a life-sentence).

Like I said: I’ve seen this before.

And yet, here we all are enthralled and fascinated by this particular instance of injustice in the Matrix.

So much so that petitions have been created. And according to the Independent UK, over 380,000 signers have backed a petition “urging the President to conditionally pardon the Wisconsin man.”

The White House has since responded to the petition, thanking the signers for the concern but also dutifully pointing out that “Since Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are both state prisoners, the President cannot pardon them. A pardon in this case would need to be issued at the state level by the appropriate authorities.”

Nevertheless, that has not stopped the campaign to free the big homie Avery. And all across the blogosphere there are news articles, television reports and essays not only exploring every conceivable angle of this man’s supposed innocence but also raising questions about the state of the justice system in general. Most recently are this The Daily Beast  piece, which introduces us to two possible new suspects in the gruesome killings, and this piece in Slate, which asks us to consider how class might have played in Avery’s conviction.

It would be easy to attribute the general public’s fascination with this case to the magnificent job done by the producers of this series, who spent ten years documenting and pouring over the facts in this case.

But I do wonder had Avery been Black, would folks care as much as they do?

And as astutely noted by Paste Magazine‘s contributing writer Hari Ziyad, author of The Paradox of Steven Avery: How Making a Murderer Challenges White America’s Faith In The Police, the answer is probably nope!

Or as Ziyad writes:

According to a December Gallup poll, 56% of Americans rate the honesty and ethics of police officers as “high” or “very high,” up from 48% in 2014, with 64% of whites feeling that way. This, despite the work of the Movement for Black Lives in the past few years, access to camera footage of officers shooting a 12 year old child within seconds of pulling up to him (and getting away with it), and a fairly publicized trial and conviction of an officer accused of raping at least 13 women over the course of several years.

With that in mind, the shocked response to Making a Murderer is unsurprising. America—specifically White America—consistently refuses to believe in the fallibility of its system. Tamir Rice was Black. Those 13 women in the Daniel Holtzclaw case were, too. “Who will keep us safe?” was never the same question with the same answers for everyone, because some of “us” aren’t white.

The blond hair and blue eyes of Steven Avery fly in the face of the presupposed idea that law enforcement keeps white people safe. Avery shows how white people can also become a government threat and be handled accordingly, the same way Black people and other people of color have been handled for centuries. In a sense, he becomes quite the paradox—shedding light on a police culture that basks in freedom from accountability for most crimes, but only giving importance to combatting that culture when the victim is white and relatable.”

It may sound like a trivial observation, but Ziyad’s point is grounded in plenty of research. For instance, in 2013, Slate contributing writer Jason Silverstein highlighted several studies which found that in general most people believe that “Black people feel less pain than white people.”

Calling it a “racial empathy gap” Silverstein goes on to note how the belief that Black folks are built for abuse “helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system.”

Just to be clear: I’m not hating on the man. If he is innocent, I hope Avery is not only exonerated but those who tried to railroad him are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. However, it is hard to join in with the rest of the general public screaming “injustice” and sleuthing for the truth when the same general public watched a 12-year old Cleveland Black boy be shot to death by police – and then not be indicted for it – and didn’t do or have much to say about it at all.

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