The specter of white supremacy looms throughout the new season of the Netflix political fiction "House of Cards." The show is supposed to serve as a window into how power is gained, stolen and exploited in the highest levels of government. But all you need is to read Politico or ProPublica on any given day to know that, and the reality is much creepier. A deeper view of "House of Cards" reveals how racism has worked and continues to work for the preservation of power in America that people of color can’t seem to penetrate. If you want to know why our real-life African-American POTUS appears too often constrained by forces beyond his control, this show and this season in particular provides glimpses into the mechanics that make those constraints possible.
It also shows the roots of those constraints. About a third into this season, Frank Underwood, the U.S. vice president and the show’s lead character, is "visited" by his ancestor Augustus Elijah Underwood, a Confederate soldier. Frank is at a battleground in Spotsylvania, Va., where a Civil War reenactment is taking place, and where one of the battlefield actors is revealed as the veep’s great-great-great grandfather (get how great he is?) Augustus, who was killed during battle.
At first, Underwood takes a hallowed interest in his ancestor’s character, mostly because he didn’t know that he, himself, is a Son of a Confederate veteran. But he soon discards all interest saying, "I personally take no pride in the Confederacy. Avoid wars you can’t win, and never raise your flag for an asinine cause like slavery."
Underwood is a South Carolina Democrat so you’d think that he’s taking a noble position on the most ignoble of causes. But that’s not it. It’s just that slavery isn’t worth fighting for — or rather the enslaved African-Americans weren’t worth it.
Episodes later, when controversy engulfs Underwood’s one black friend, Freddy Hayes, threatening to undermine the vice president in the process, Underwood decides Hayes isn’t worth fighting for either, and disposes of him.
The main thing that "House of Cards" wants you to know is that power, for some, must be preserved and expanded at all costs. Power in this tale, in this White House, is white privilege and supremacy. It’s something that cannot be bought, though many characters of color in this political saga try the best they can. This power rests snuggly in the federal executive office, lording over America. The Confederates failed; white supremacy still won.
This is what resonates most deeply during the second season of this Netflix drama based on a British show about corruption in Parliament. The American version is also about corruption, but not neatly as a critique of it. Instead, in the American card house, we find that corruption is an exclusive province in the federal government that no non-white person can access, even with wealth and Cabinet-level security clearances.
Almost every person of color in the show thinks they have some measure of power, until white power wielders — namely Underwood and his nemesis, the Koch Brother-ish Raymond Tusk — show them what power really is. Running down the list (Spoiler alert!):
- Remy Danton, an African-American lobbyist and political influence dealer who thinks Tusk has his back. Well, he doesn’t.
- Linda Vasquez, the Latina White House Chief of Staff, who believes she controls the POTUS’s schedule and agenda until Underwood disabuses her of that notion.
- Freddy Hayes, Underwood’s black friend and BBQ pit owner who is cut loose by the Veep when a media report exposes Hayes’ criminal history.
- Daniel Lanagin, a Native American casino owner who’s helping Tusk buy political influence in ways that undermine Underwood.
- Xander Feng, a Chinese billionaire diplomat who Underwood uses to create political turmoil between the United States and China.
All of these characters are chopped down, in one way or another by Underwood or Tusk. In one key scene, Underwood slides away from the aforementioned Civil War reenactment to secretly meet with Feng. He wants Feng to finance a bridge project in Long Island and is seeking a deal over a lawsuit the U.S. has against China about currency manipulation. Underwood demands a lot of the Chinese representative here, but he offers little in return. The insult of this causes Feng to spit on Underwood’s great-to-the-third-power-grandfather’s Civil War grave.
"There is no sacred ground for the conquered," Feng tells him.
In another scene, Underwood visits the Native American billionaire Lanagin at his home to confront him about his financing of Underwood’s political opponents. When Lanagin tells him to get out his face, Underwood reminds him of the power of the White House. Lanagin responds by reminding Underwood that his executive power means nothing on sovereign tribal grounds, and also that he has enough money to ignore the vice president.
But in the end, both Feng and Lanagin are subdued. Despite their wealth and connections, neither has direct influence; both have to purchase it by using another white man — Raymond Tusk — as their proxy. No other person of color in the political saga even comes close to touching Underwood’s power.
Political and social issues including feminism, rape culture and energy policy are all entertained by Underwood, and his equally cold-blooded wife Claire, but only in their quest to attain more power. They make no serious attempts to resolve any of those problems, instead using them to leverage more political capital. It’s a tangled web indeed, but it’s only a web of intrigue for viewers of color if you care about how white supremacy and privilege is maintained in America. Since we all live mostly as the victims of that maintenance, there is very little illumination here.
The only thing that matters at the end of this season is that the Underwoods have manifested their destiny. The Civil War ghost shows that for some white people, power and privilege is inherited, and those at the top have no interest of letting go of it — definitely not to honor or defend the causes of people of other races and nations.
"Choosing money over power is a mistake that almost everyone makes," Underwood says in the first season of "House of Cards." The second season, though, shows that many choose money because they have conceded that they can’t access power that has been passed down by birthright. This is white supremacy’s legacy, and "House of Cards" shows how it manages to live on.