So, the end of season 4 of Orange is the New Black ended with what the writers have described as their tribute to Black Lives Matter: the senseless, brutal death behind bars of the character Poussey Washington, the most prominent Black affirmed lesbian character on the show. She was in the top tier of characters in terms of the amount of development she’s received through story arcs and interactions with others. At the time of her death, she was one of the few characters in a happy long-term relationship and she was looking towards the future, making contacts and planning her post-prison career.
Others with a more personal stake and more relevant lived experience have already written at length of the problems inherent in her death. For my part, I will only say that I am reminded of Stokely Carmichael’s speech about the purpose of civil rights bills:
“I maintain that every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not for black people. For example, I am black. I know that. I also know that while I am black I am a human being, and therefore I have the right to go into any public place. White people didn’t know that. Every time I tried to go into a place they stopped me. So some boys had to write a bill to tell that white man, “He’s a human being; don’t stop him.” That bill was for that white man, not for me. I knew it all the time. I knew it all the time.
I knew that I could vote and that that wasn’t a privilege; it was my right. Every time I tried I was shot, killed or jailed, beaten or economically deprived. So somebody had to write a bill for white people to tell them, “When a black man comes to vote, don’t bother him.” That bill, again, was for white people, not for black people; so that when you talk about open occupancy, I know I can live anyplace I want to live. It is white people across this country who are incapable of allowing me to live where I want to live. You need a civil rights bill, not me. I know I can live where I want to live.”
In other words: who is it that needs to be given a fictional ideal representation of a friendly, non-threatening, non-violent offender, someone highly educated and from a respectable background, who dies a shocking, senseless, and preventable death in front of our eyes in order to understand that Black Lives Matter?
That’s all I’ll say on that subject.
The purpose of this post is to address the character who was made the instrument of her death by the writers: young and naive guard Baxter Bayley. While the majority of the new guards are the military vets introduced this season, he’s a recent high school graduate who has been at a loose end, bouncing from job to job. The previous season, he was openly compared to a puppy dog and given the nickname “Gerber” (as in “Gerber Baby”).
In the same episode where Poussey died, we saw his backstory, which included a run-in with the law: on the night of their high school graduation, he and three friends climbed the Litchfield municipal water tower with beer and pot. They were caught and hauled in and spent an unspecified amount of time (certainly no longer than an overnight stay, and probably far less) before the sheriff and a deputy pull a quick “scared straight” gag on them and let them go.
Bayley, before stepping out of the holding cell, says something like, “Are you sure? Because we had reefer, too!”
The sheriff, incredulous, says, “Is this kid serious?” Bayley’s friend who shared the cell quickly says something like, “No, sir, he’s not.” and moves him along before he can say anything else.
Later on, when the private company that now runs the correctional facility is looking for a slant to give Poussey’s death in the press, we learn that she was arrested for trespass and “possession with intent” of less than half an ounce of marijuana. What was the crime Bayley and his friends were hauled in for on their graduation night? Trespassing. They also had in their possession at the time what was likely a similarly small amount of marijuana. By all rights, the trajectory of Bayley’s life could well have been the same as Poussey’s, except for one thing: when the cop car pulled up the water tower, what he saw was not four criminal, but four Nice Kids With A Future.
The sort of people who like to believe that racism is not racism but just facts loves to point out differing rates of criminal convictions by racial demographics as proof that racial profiling is not racist nor discriminatory but Just Good Sense: if a certain group of people is most likely to be found carrying drugs, then it makes sense to focus your limited time and resources there, right?
Except this confuses cause and effect. If you’re only looking in a certain place for something, that will be the place you most often find it. The effect of the lowered scrutiny placed on white drug offenders is that young white people are actually markedly more likely to offend, because they have less fear of consequences. Add to this the discretionary powers that police have when they even catch someone and the further discretionary powers possessed by judges and prosecutors, and you see how the racial disparity becomes magnified at every step of the way.
Stop-and-frisk programs like the one in New York City are a pronounced example of this discretionary power at its most naked: when possession itself is not a criminal offense but displaying it in public is, the police stop only those people they wish to criminalize and order them to display any drugs in their possession.
It’s not just drug crimes where this effect is in play. White children (especially middle class and up) left home alone while their parents work are “latchkey kids”; Black and Latino children are CPS cases. Who are “boys will be boys” and “just kids, for Christ’s sake” and who are “thugs” and “suspected gang members”?
Throughout the drama surrounding Poussey’s death, warden Joe Caputo defends the character of both her and the young guard to his corporate masters, but when the chips are down and push comes to shove, he chooses to throw her under the bus to defend the Nice Kid With A Future.
When the subject of white privilege comes up, so often the response from those among us who’ve never contemplated our privilege is, “Nobody ever gave me anything just for being white. I still have to work for things. I still run into trouble. Nobody ever gave me a pass for being white.” I bet Bayley and his friends didn’t feel like they got a pass when they got pulled off the water tower and thrown into the clink.
But if the people who dealt with them had thought they looked like criminals instead of four Nice Kids With A Future, they could have been brought up on charges. They could have been shot, if the man who brought them in had been sufficiently fearful of what four dangerous criminals might do to him if given half a chance.
You never really know when someone’s giving you a pass. You don’t know how often a cop decides not to pull you over, how often a loss prevention worker decides not to stop you and ask you to turn out your pockets, how often a cashier decides not to look closer at your check or credit card or ID, how often a bank clerk decides not to question where the money you’re trying to withdraw or deposit really came from, how often a landlord decides not to distrust you.
In Bayley’s flashback arc, we see him being fired from one of his places of employment (an ice cream stand) for theft of materials; giving out something in the neighborhood of $30 of ice cream a day to girls he finds hot. I’m sure someone reading this would use that as an example of how he doesn’t benefit from white privilege, but the extent of the consequences he faces is being fired and having his last paycheck confiscated to cover the loss.
In other words, he steals a few hundred dollars’ worth of materials from his job and his “punishment” is he has to make restitution and he’s removed from the position that allowed him to do so. He doesn’t face charges. He’s not put into the system. And his reaction is incredulity; his idea of an apology is “I didn’t know there were cameras.” I.e., “I never expected to get caught, much less that there would be consequences.”
Caught red-handed stealing, he’s given a pass.
The (I believe unintended) lesson of Bayley’s flashbacks is he’s in the position where he can unthinkingly suffocate a human being to death because he has been given passes. All of his life, he has been given passes.
Think about how often a (usually young, usually male) white offender who makes the news winds up being given a reduced sentence or no charges because the defense attorney—or the judge, or in some cases, even the prosecutor—makes the argument that the accused had no reason to expect there would be consequences. Think about how often this argument is brought up in academic settings, secondary or post-secondary, when disciplinary actions are considered. And think about how often it flies, as an excuse.
Think about how often the watercooler talk or internet commentary around young white men accused of something comes down to, “This shouldn’t define his life. He’s a good kid. He has his whole future ahead of him.”
To make a long story short, if the intended purpose of this storyline was to show the audience that Black Lives Matter, they should have stuck with showing us Poussey’s life. By making it about her death and then even more so making it about the life of the fresh-faced, friendly young white guy with his whole life (still) ahead of him, they instead told a story about how important it is to protect the Nice Kids With A Future.
In other words, what they’ve taught us thus far is that above and beyond anyone else, White Lives Matter.
Same old, same old.