With apologies to Marx, it seems that America has reversed one of his better-known aphorisms. Instead of history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, our spectacle-addled postmodern republic experiences it first as reality television, and then as politics.
That, at any rate, seemed the axiom lurking behind one of last week’s more bizarre YouTube finds: Footage of Baltimore DA Marilyn Mosby, well known now as one of the only local legal authorities to successfully indict police officers in the brutal killing of a young black man, when she appeared in a 2000 segment of Judge Judy.
The episode transports viewers into an uncanny kind of alternate universe. Mosby was at the time a twenty-year-old student at Tuskegee University. She exudes self-confidence—and sports a preppy élan to go with it, complete with a sweater tied around her shoulder. But instead of declaring her intention to align the American rule of law with the demands of racial justice, she was in Judge Judy’s court pursuing a far more mundane complaint. She’s seeking damages from a seeming case of undergrad hijinks spinning out of control: Her Tuskegee neighbor had broken into her college apartment and trashed it. She sued him for the rent that she’d paid in advance, and after the standard stern rebuke that Judge Judy Sheindlin handed out the defendant, Mosby emerged triumphant, with a judgment of $1,731.90.
It speaks volumes about the state of racial justice in America that this anodyne daytime TV appearance was instantly embraced by Mosby’s defenders as proof positive of her precocity, courage, and legal savvy. Reality television may not produce much in the way of real-world evidence of professionalism or competence—but it’s important to remember that Mosby’s backers are pushing back against an ugly, wearily familiar campaign on the part of Fox News and other conservative media outlets to insinuate that, like many black women in America, Mosby is simply not up to the task at hand.
But Mosby’s Judge Judy star turn was a portal to an alternate universe in another sense. It was another sample of a wholly imaginary version of our justice system as it is racially choreographed for the daytime-TV cameras. In this world, black plaintiffs like Mosby are treated respectfully, and win ready vindication. And still more strikingly, black judges preside over a disproportionate number of these people’s courts, dispensing out judgments that white and privileged petitioners must abide by. It takes but a cursory glance at the news headlines, and the course of legal history in this country, to realize that this is a nearly complete photographic negative of the actual state of things when it comes to the intersection race and procedural justice.
So when Mosby stepped forward for her post-verdict interview, it was more than a bit discombobulating to hear today’s besieged Charm City DA burbling in gratitude. “I tried to speak to the D.A., I’ve spoken to police officers, and finally Judge Judy,” the undergrad Mosby enthused. “She, finally, gave me justice!”
And it’s uncannier still when one takes a closer look at the stubborn discrepancy between the high quotient of prominent blacks represented on television court shows and the considerably more vast and anonymous black defendants ensnared in the judicial system. You need look no further, of course, than the case that, in 2015, has Mosby back in front of the TV cameras: The Baltimore Police Department’s killing of Freddie Gray, a young African American man from West Baltimore. Details of the Gray case remain sketchy, but Gray’s killing clearly transpired in a much less social setting, with precious few procedural niceties on offer. Instead of being rewarded for his deferential comportment, Gray was targeted for making prolonged eye contact with his police assailants—and instead of getting a day in court, he got his spine severed in one of the Baltimore PD’s trademark “rough rides” in the back of a careening police van.
This is all at least a planet away from the roster of black judges who have thronged the syndicated daytime airwaves over the past twenty years: Judge Mathis, Divorce Court (starring first Judge Mablean Ephriam, then Judge Lynn Toler), Family Court with Judge Penny, Judge Karen, Judge Faith, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Hatchett, and Tanya Acker on Hot Bench. As Americans are focusing with unprecedented sustained attention on the racial biases of the justice system, the unreality of this reality-TV spectacle stands out in especially strong relief. The sheer number of black court shows presents America with a fairytale world where blacks are disproportionally in charge of administering justice, even if it is a nonbinding arbitration or a small-claims court case like Mosby’s was. Although they exhibit a supremely professional demeanor, you can’t help but wonder if these TV judges are, like many other reality TV protagonists, scripted to act in stereotype-reinforcing fashion. That’s especially the case for the women judges, who are almost uniformly depicted as founts of tough love, while also giving viewers a bracing reminder of how amazingly fair the American meritocracy continues to be. Judge Mathis, to take the extreme case—which as we know from centuries worth of American race baiting, is always and everywhere also the most representative one—went from a teenage hooligan to a judge.
Star Jones’s short-lived mid-nineties vehicle Jones and Jury was the first entry in this mind-bending daytime genre. It’s no accident that these court shows began life by sharing the airwaves with train wreck talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show and Maury in addition to TV spots advertising class action lawsuits for faulty intrauterine devices and birth control pills and slip and fall accidents: Both the scripted and ad-slotted programming on the daytime dial act as a sort of collective wish fulfillment fantasy, in which many of America’s most damning secrets and obsessions are aired for forceful moral judgment by studio and home audiences alike, while the plaintiffs bar dutifully trolls the viewership for amped-up clients, fed on a steady diet of public inquisition into everything from family exploitation and sexual abuse, to minor damaged property and landlord-tenant claims.
In short, daytime TV is a place where the American id has long gone in search of justice, or its rough simulacrum. So the abundance of shows featuring black judges suggests that either the majority of stay-at-home audiences are black, which is clearly not the case—or that black judges trend well with viewers and add ersatz racial justice into the bargain. Here’s hoping that Marilyn Mosby, having done her tour in that imaginary alternate universe, is finally poised to give the rest of America a dose of the real thing.