Quoted: Malcolm Harris on Race In Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston as Walter White. Image via Green Bay Press Gazette.

Demographically, the viewers AMC wants are more likely to do a lot of pills than unscrew a light bulb to smoke some ice, even if the substances are chemically similar. There are plenty of expert scientists making tons of money cooking up and selling amphetamines, but they’re not robbing trains or toting guns. Big Pharma brings in a $250 billion annually in the U.S. alone, much of it from the same chemical compounds in White’s lab. When it’s 89 percent pure, it’s illegal meth; when it’s 99 percent pure, methamphetamine is sold by Lundbeck Inc. under the trademark name Desoxyn, for “the short-term management of exogenous obesity.” Walter isn’t making crank; he is manufacturing black-market pharmaceuticals.

A “Breaking Bad” in which the street dealers were diluting the product would have had Walter and his partner Jesse Pinkman competing with every local operation, struggling to set up a larger distribution network without costly middlemen and, well, interacting with meth users a lot. But “The Wire on Ice” isn’t sexy enough to sell a Dodge, and a teacher slanging to his fucked-up former students would turn stomachs, not open wallets. Suffice to say it would be a darker show.

Which brings us to the other thing that sets White and Pinkman apart from their competitors: color. And I don’t mean blue.

The white guy who enters a world supposedly beneath him where he doesn’t belong yet nonetheless triumphs over the inhabitants is older than talkies. TV Tropes calls it “Mighty Whitey,” and examples range from Tom Cruise as Samurai and Daniel Day Lewis as Mohican to the slightly less far-fetched Julia Stiles as ghetto-fabulous. But whether it’s a 3-D Marine playing alien in “Avatar” or Bruce Wayne slumming in a Bhutanese prison, the story is still good for a few hundred million bucks. The story changes a bit from telling to telling, but the meaning is consistent: a white person is (and by extension, white people are) best at everything.

– From “Walter White Supremacy,” in The New Inquiry

[h/t Rania Khalek]

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  • meeneecat

    I agree with the idea of “mighty whitey” where applied to these other movies and shows. However with regard to “Breaking Bad” then doesn’t this (stereotypically) imply that most drug users and drug dealers are of color, when in fact this is actually false. It’s a racist myth that the “typical drug dealer/user” is a poor, black or brown person usually from the city. And as the author points out himself, the biggest dealers/users with regard to amphetamines are actually the pharmaceutical companies and their customers, mostly white pill users. While the application of the law is unequal along racial lines – a black person is more likely to go prison – a white person is still 4 times more likely to use cocaine and twice as likely to abuse alcohol. Additionally, meth usage rates among whites is .7%, while only .2% for african americans. Overall african americans have a 37% lifetime change of using an illegal drug, while a white person has a 42% chance and 9% of whites meet the criteria for substance abuse, while just 5% for african americans. The example of “Breaking Bad” as of an example of “the white person going into a world beneath him” – the author implying that this world of drugs is occupied by people of color – is problematic. The typical drug dealer and user is actually white.

  • athenia45

    Walt killed two dudes of color within the first three episodes and they made it like here’s the poor, put upon white dude who just happened to kill some dudes. Um, no.

  • Delevan

    Walt’s empire lasted maybe a little over a year while Guss managed to maintain an empire for 20 years end never got caught. Not sure if Walter White really triumphed. He always seemed in over his head.