Law & Order
posted by Jason Mazzone
I’m a Law & Order fan. I love all of them: Original, Criminal Intent, Special Victims, and Trial by Jury. I also like the re-runs—even when I’ve seen an episode before there are always enough twists and turns and details to get my attention.
I’ve often gone to watch scenes being filmed in lower Manhattan. A neighbor in my building is a script checker for the show and so on occasion I’ve also been able to sneak a peek at draft scripts left in the recycling bin.
Though in real life no criminal case is resolved in one hour, Law & Order is pretty good on the substance of the law. The precedents mentioned are typically real cases. The rulings by the judges (at lightening speed) are often correct. I tell my students they can learn a lot by watching.
One curiosity is that most of the judges on Law & Order are black women. This is not realistic. Even in New York City black female judges are few and far between.
Why, then, are so many black women the judges on Law & Order? Is it because they can more credibly deliver sassy rulings that help the plot along? Are the show’s creators hoping to inspire black girls to go to law school and then take the bench? Are there a lot of under-employed black women actors?
I suspect that the reason there are so many black women judges on Law & Order is that so many of the criminals on the show are well-off white people—the pharmacist who poisoned a customer; the high school teacher who molested a student; the stockbroker who raped a secretary; the CEO who needed his wife’s life insurance and so hired an assassin.
By having black women sit in judgment of these defendants, Law & Order turns upside down the existing racial imbalances in our criminal justice system. Wander into a criminal courtroom and the judge will typically be a middle-aged white guy—and the defendant black or Hispanic. Our prisons are filled with racial minorities.
The casting imbalance on Law & Order imparts a powerful lesson. It gives its white middle-class audience a glimpse of what, for other people, criminal justice is like.