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Everyone in the world, it seems, is watching “Making a Murderer,” the Netflix original documentary series about crime, punishment, guilt and innocence. The 10-hour series, which follows the legal drama of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man jailed 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit only to face new charges in a local murder soon after his release, has grabbed viewers with shocking twists and turns, infuriating examples of shoddy police work, and the emotionally wrenching question at its heart: Was an innocent man railroaded twice?
Naturally, there have been think pieces (including Erik Nelson’s sharp cultural analysis on Salon this week). More than just a popular entertainment option, “Making a Murderer,” created by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, is a bona fide cultural event.
It’s also one of the whitest things to appear on television lately. So what does “Making a Murderer” have to do with race? A lot, it turns out.
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.