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A TV Episode from the Eighties Reveals the True Test of Character

What we say is as important as what we do.

By Rachel CarringtonPublished 4 years ago 3 min read
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Sharon Gless as Christine Cagney and Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey

In the early 1980s, a cop drama debuted that was unlike any other as this one had two women as the lead detectives. Starring Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly, Cagney and Lacey tackled controversial subjects and didn't shy away from topics that could make viewers uncomfortable. It had a special knack for episodes that challenged belief systems. This was never more visible than in the second episode of the sixth season of the series.

In The City is Burning, a black juvenile is killed in an all-white neighborhood, and the murder weapon is a cop's gun. That cop happens to be a detective in Cagney and Lacey's 14th precinct. What follows is a tense episode filled with ethnic slurs, left in place by the network censors, and graphic confrontations that are laced with profanity and rage.

Detective Petrie, portrayed by Carl Lumbly, and Detective Corassa, portrayed by Paul Mantee, have a particularly violent interaction when Corassa, whose gun was used in the murder, uses a degrading term in the squad room. Detective Petrie counters by using an ethnic slur, and the two men go toe-to-toe. It's a scene meant to make us cringe. Meant to make us want to turn the channel. And meant to make us think that those terms shouldn't come so easily.

Nothing is resolved in this episode. There were no apologies or moments of revelation. But then, nothing could be resolved in one episode. Instead, it's used as a flashlight to show characters the darkness inside. It's up to them to confront it and eliminate it.

The writer of the episode, Samm-Art Williams, in an interview with People in 1987, said that the episode was meant to show how "pressure forces even good cops to face their subconscious racism in the squad room." Unfortunately, the scenes that took place inside the fictional 14th Precinct are all too common now, thirty-three years later. It's not unusual to see viral rants of people using derogatory words like they're a part or normal vocabulary.

I'll tell you what I think. I think everyone's a racist. That's the way this country is set up. It's only a matter of what you do with it.~Detective Marcus Petrie

This is the response Petrie gave when asked his thoughts on what was happening inside and outside the precinct. Is this still true today? Are we all a racist, but some of us keep it inside while others allow it out in the open?

John Kaplan as Harvey Lacey

While this episode is brutal and difficult to watch, it's a harsh reality that is still being played out today. Years ago, it wasn't unusual to hear racial slurs coming from the mouths of well-dressed men and women with coiffed hair and strings of pearls around their necks. It was considered acceptable because "that's just how things were."

Today, sadly, the only difference is the women aren't wearing pearls and men will spew forth the hated words no matter what they're wearing. And racial terms are couched in what some might considered "less offensive" language like "I succeeded in life. Why can't they?" The "they" implying people of color. Then there's the "I didn't own any slaves" or "work like a Mexican." When confronted, the people saying these words are often surprised that their comments are considered racist, and their reply is usually "but I didn't mean it that way."

At the end of the episode, Mary Beth Lacey asks how Detective Petrie's daughter is after she was chased on the playground and called a vulgar name. He responds with "a little wiser maybe." Mary Beth says "Maybe some of us are, too." Detective Petrie's "I hope so" isn't said with a lot of optimism. Then the squad is notified that "a bunch of white kids just stabbed a black kid," and any kernel of hope drains out of Petrie's face.

In the Bible, there is a verse in Matthew 12:34 that says "for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." Simply put, what is in a person's heart will eventually come out of their mouth. We might not always be able to trust people to tell the truth, but we can trust the ease in which they denigrate people. And an episode from the 1980s is a glaring reminder that character is what's inside of us, not the facade we present on the outside.

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About the Creator

Rachel Carrington

I'm an avid writer and reader. I've had over 53 novels published and over 2,000 articles. Here I review movies, TV series/episodes, books, and write about entertainment. www.rachelcarrington.com

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