Scandal is all about patriotism. “The Republic,” and what’s best for it, is always the bottom line for Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), her gladiators, and lovers in politics. But the United States of America is far perfect, and the country found itself plagued by social issues. And, despite creating the most obvious opportunities to talk about one of the country’s biggest problems — a Black woman in a high position of political power sleeping with just as powerful white men is a great entryway to a conversation about racism — Scandal has played pretty coy on the subject. There have been passing scenes where a line or two was dedicated to calling out racial microaggressions or commenting on it in a broader sense. But racism hasn’t really been embedded into the DNA of any of Scandal’s characters, which feels like an oversight given the realities of being a Black American. Thursday night’s episode seemed to finally make the effort.
Marcus Walker (Cornelius Smith Jr.) goes to Cuba for a vacation. He deserves this. I can’t imagine that in between working for Olivia Pope and then Mellie’s (Bellamy Young) presidential campaign, he’s had many days off. He goes out clubbing and even spends the night with a Cuban girl at her place. But his mood is quickly dampened when he asks his new lover for a second date at his hotel, and she explains the way things are in her home country. She can’t be seen at the hotel he’s staying at because native Afro-Cubans are discouraged from interacting with tourists. Because he’s obviously American, she thinks there’s a very strong chance that she’ll be mistaken for a sex worker and doesn’t want to be embarrassed in her hometown.
From that point forward, the racial dynamics of Cuba are glaringly clear. Wealthy white tourists are doted upon and catered to, while Marcus chills poolside without the woman he wants by his side. The glamour of his resort is completely different from her humble abode, and the contrast is by design. Realizing that his paradise isn’t perfect, Marcus decides that it’s time to head back to the States and the world he knows.
As I mentioned earlier, though, America has its own problems with race, and Marcus quickly realizes this in his new role working for former President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) in Vermont. He is acutely aware of a Black activist who is sleeping under a statue of a confederate hero until it’s removed. Despite all of Fitz’s promises of a productive partnership where he and Marcus work together to do something meaningful for the country, he has still relegated Marcus to a subservient role that includes fetching him scotch. Marcus is disgusted that Fitz fails to acknowledge how much Olivia upgraded his life during his tenure as president. Additionally, other stuffy white men come around to schmooze with Fitz, and his white male privilege doesn’t allow him to realize how they’re being biased towards Marcus.
Even though he and Fitz made up by the end of the episode, Marcus had absorbed a painful lesson about the reality of anti-Black racism. It’s global and all consuming. It has made bedfellows with global capitalism — as modeled in Cuba’s tourist economy — and the social fabric of American politics, as evidenced in Vermont. Even though Marcus is no longer marching for Black Lives Matter in the streets of D.C., he still hasn’t escaped it’s grips. No one on Scandal has, even if they don’t talk about.