Thursday, January 7, 2016

The potent intersection of whiteness, low-income, and rurality in "Making A Murderer"

The Netflix Series "Making A Murderer" has been all over conventional and social media for weeks now.  Just a few stories are here, here, here, here and here.  Heather Schwedel summarizes the docuseries and key events it depicts for Slate:
It focuses on Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison before DNA evidence helped him clear his name—only to be accused of another crime soon after his release, this time murder.  ... 
Let’s start at the beginning. How did Steven Avery get into this mess? 
In 1985, when he was 23 years old and raising several young kids with his new wife Lori, Avery went to prison for raping a local woman, Penny Ann Beernsten. In 2003, after he had served 18 years of his sentence, DNA evidence exonerated him of the crime. It turned out that DNA pointed to another man, who may have been a suspect when the rape initially was being investigated but who police didn’t fully pursue. The Wisconsin Innocence Project, which had helped Avery turn over his case, trumpeted its success, and Avery prepared a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.
The real action begins a few years later, when Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, are charged with rape and murder.  What the documentary filmmakers suggest is that the charges are a set up—that Avery is framed by local law enforcement and prosecutors, presumably in retaliation for the pending lawsuit against the county, and that the cops essentially use Dassey as an unintelligent pawn against Avery.

I've yet to see any of the episodes, let alone binge watch all ten hours, but a friend who has seen the series from start to finish gave me a heads up about some key aspects of the show that have largely escaped media scrutiny or commentary.  Essentially, she mentioned the "white trash" angle on the whole matter.  By that, I mean the fact that Steven Avery is white, low socioeconomic status (low-SES) and rural, which is sorta' the perfect white trash trifecta.

Then today, finally, Kate Tuttle takes up the whiteness factor in this piece in Salon.  She writes of "Making a Murderer":
It’s also one of the whitest things to appear on television lately. Whiter than a Woody Allen movie. Whiter than all the episodes of “Friends” that didn’t costar Aisha Tylor. Whiter than the snow that flurries around Avery, his family and the lawyers in all those scenes set in a brutal Wisconsin winter.
 And this, my friends, makes the docuseries about race.  After all, white folks have race, too, and white skin is not a magic bullet.  It does not protect them being low-income and low-status, and it does not protect them from police harassment and misconduct.  Indeed, the particular combination of whiteness with low-SES status can evoke some particularly virulent treatment because these "low rent" whites are seen as defiling whiteness.  

Tuttle continues.
As historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote in her 2010 book, “A History of White People,” while much of our nation’s historical interest in race has centered on black and white, there has always been a debate about the terms of whiteness itself. “Rather than a single, enduring definition of whiteness,” Painter writes, “we find multiple enlargements occurring against a backdrop of black/white dichotomy.” These “enlargements” include the gradual, often contested, inclusion of Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans into the fold of white America. 
A century had passed since so-called race scientists had argued that people of different races actually belonged to distinct species. But as the late 19th century ended and the 20th century began, the categorizing of human beings was anything but fading – with the burgeoning of the eugenics movement, scientific racism moved from theory to practice. No longer satisfied with simply studying the differences among people – using calipers to measure head size and shape, assigning labels to skin color and hair texture – now the race scientists turned toward identifying families marred by “defective heredity” and preventing their ranks from reproducing through coerced or forced sterilization.
* * *
As Painter notes, many successful whites saw such flawed heredity as “a threat to the welfare of the race.” How can white supremacy stand when some whites are so clearly inferior?
What did all of this mean for Avery and Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, where these events occurred?  Reesa Evans, Avery's public defender in the initial rape case against Avery, helps us understand the social status of Avery and his family in that place and time:
Manitowoc County is working class farmers. And the Avery family, they weren’t that.  They dealt in junk. … They didn’t dress like everybody else. They didn’t have education like other people. They weren’t involved in all the community activities. I don’t think it ever crossed their mind that they should try to fit into the community. They fit into the community that they had built.
That "community that they had built" was essentially  a compound where the extended family lived, amidst the junk yard.  

In addition to the low-income white issue, the series depicts a big dose of the "usual suspects" phenomenon, which I have argued is especially potent in rural communities, which are marked by a lack of anonymity.  Manitowoc County, where these events took place, is nonmetropolitan, with a population of about 80,000.  The City of Manitowoc has a population of 34,000.

Given the inherent conflicts, the case was prosecuted by Ken Kratz of neighboring Calumet County. Kratz has since commented here that he regrets the involvement of the Manitowoc County police department in investigating the crime.  Kratz says he took every step to keep them out of it, which was especially critical given that two officers of that department were defendants in Avery's suit against the County.  

Rurality is not necessarily a component of the "white trash" trope, but it was a century and a half ago and still arguably remains the proverbial icing on the cake when it comes to what constitutes white trash.  Read more here and here.  

Meanwhile, I will close with this quote from Michael O'Kelly, an investigator who worked for Brendan Dassey's first defense attorney:   
I am learning the Avery family history and about each member of the Avery family. ... These are criminals. There are members engaged in sexual activity with nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws. … These people are pure evil. A friend of mine suggested, ‘This is a one-branch family tree. Cut this tree down. We need to end the gene pool here.'
Shockingly close, in some regards, to what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court case that upheld the practice of eugenics:
Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

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