On Thursday, NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit premiered an episode in which a white rape victim agonizes over prosecuting her rapist because he's black.
In the episode, "Truth Embargo," the rape occurs during a mass smash-n-grab robbery of a high-end store. One of the masked looters spots a shopper in a bathing suit near the dressing room and attacks her.
At the hospital, the victim, Natalie (Romina D'Ugo), falsely claims she did not see the rapist because he was wearing a mask. Video store cameras later show he took off his mask before entering the dressing area.
Natalie's lesbian partner, Brooke (Keeley Miller), is angry at police detectives when she meets them in the hospital, somehow blaming them for New York City's spiking crime:
Brooke: [Scoffs] What happened to this city? I mean-- are the police trying to prove some kind of point?
Detective Velasco: What point is that?
Brooke: That we still need you.
More evidence piles up, which points to a black man named Jay Watson (Mykey Cooper). Natalie reluctantly identifies him in a police line-up, and he is arrested.
During the trial, Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) asks Brooke how she's doing. Brooke tells her that the biggest source of angst for Natalie right now is "the systemic inequities that exist within the criminal justice system":
Benson: Brooke. How are you holding up?
Brooke: Not great. I was up all night with Natalie. She was inconsolable.
Benson: That's understandable. Look, when a person goes through a trauma like that, they can end up in a very vulnerable state.
Brooke: Yeah, it wasn't about that.
Benson: Okay, then what?
Brooke: We're acutely aware of the systemic inequities that exist within the criminal justice system.
Benson: You mean for people like Jay.
Brooke: Yeah. Our concern is that he might not receive a fair trial.
Benson: Well, I can't deny that there's a history of racial bias. It's certainly not a perfect system.
Brooke: How do you do this every day?
Benson: My focus, my priority is on healing. So I do what I can.
Brooke: When does Natalie actually have to take the stand?
Benson: She's up next.
On the stand, assistant district attorney Dominick Carisi (Peter Scanavino) asks Natalie to identify her assailant in the courtroom, but she remains silent, forcing Carisi to request a brief recess.
Outside the courtroom, Natalie tells Carisi and Benson the dramatic story of her adopted brother from Cameroon. When she was twelve years old, Natalie dared her black adopted brother to steal a pack of gum. They got caught. Cops gave her a warning, but her brother received a night in juvenile detention.
This story is, of course, preposterous. Even if it were realistic, it's still not believable that a victim would want her rapist to go free because of it. Benson tries to convince Natalie to change her mind:
Benson: But Natalie, Jay Watson raped you.
Natalie: Do you think I forgot? How could I? This entire trial has been an exercise in reminding me.
Carisi: And this is your chance to do something about it.
Natalie: I am going to, believe me. Because I can. I can afford therapy. I have that luxury. And maybe, one day...I'll be okay. But if that teenager goes to prison? He may not be. Ever. [crying] I don't want that.
Benson: Natalie, wait.
Eventually, Benson manages to convince Natalie to identify her attacker on the stand.
"I hope you know that I wouldn't be here if I didn't think that a fair trial was possible. And I'm not asking you to trust the system, Natalie. I'm asking you to trust me," she tells the victim.
At no point in this episode, does any character question Natalie and Brooke's presumptions about "systemic inequity" despite studies showing innocent black men are not unfairly targeted for criminal prosecution.
The episode ends with a cringeworthy scene in which Carisi agrees to accept a plea deal despite a slam dunk case that is guaranteed conviction. Why? Because, by golly, the rapist feels really, really sorry about what he did:
Carisi: I'm listening, Mr. Carter.
Carter: Go ahead, Jay.
Watson: That girl, Natalie. I did what she said. She ain't lying.
Watson: I took something. Something I can't give back. It was just supposed to be a robbery. But when I saw her-- my whole life, nobody paid attention to anything I did. Not at home, not at school. Always felt kind of invisible, you know? So why would this be any different? What I did to Natalie...I did. Changed her life forever. So, I guess I finally learned my lesson. Just too late.
Carisi: It's never too late, Mr. Watson. You'll do time. But not your whole life. When you get out, you'll still have some runway ahead of you. And taking responsibility for what you did is only the first step. Let's speak to Ms. Ross.
Lots of young people are neglected. Feeling invisible does not drive them to rob a store and rape a shopper in it.
"Truth Embargo" is eye-rolling in its excuse-making and guilt-tripping. The audience is supposed to feel sympathy for a violent criminal merely because of the color of his skin. No one, especially the victim, mentions the danger of Watson raping another woman if he is set free or receives a reduced sentence. The whole focus is instead on neurotic white guilt. For a show with the words Law & Order in its title, this episode is oddly uninterested in whether or not society should be protected from a predator.