Sociologists Critique “The Wire”

Curiously absent from the recent ESS Meetings here in New York, which included “mini-conference” on the 40th Anniversary of Elliot Lebow’s Tally’s Corner, was any discussion of popular culture representations of urban street corners aside from the occasional glancing blow at “hip hop” as unidimensionally negative. Fortunately, Brian Cook, an associate editor at In These Times, has provided a nicely sociological analysis of “The Wire,” the critically-acclaimed HBO series about street corners and the broader urban context in which they exist.  If you haven’t seen this series, do yourself a favor and add it to your Netflix queue and get caught up.  The series comes to an end with this season.)

Cook’s article pulls together quotes from several of the leading sociologists working in this field, starting with Elijah Anderson (originally interviewed by The Atlantic).  Anderson says:

“I get frustrated watching it because it gives such a powerful appearance of reality, but it always seems to leave something important out. What they have left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.”

(UPDATED TO ADD: Amelia posted more of Anderson’s comments a few days ago over at Contexts Crawler.) Cook counters that this critique is “remarkably off-base,” and he goes into some depth to taking Anderson to task, arguing that he has a “desire for a Manichean fairytale” in which “God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people set themselves against the gangs and the addicts.”   But, this is just the sort of comforting fiction that The Wire aims to subvert, Cook says. While there are heroic acts, no individual or category of individuals (e.g., cops) has any monopoly on unambiguously good character traits.

The show is quite grim. And this stark grimness about the ‘war on drugs’ and the devastating effects specifically on black, urban citizens is as David Simon, the show’s creator, intended.   To evaluate whether or not this grimness is warranted or not, Cook once again turns to a sociologist, this time Bruce Western, and his Punishment and Inequality in America (2006).     The Wire foregrounds the kinds of stats that Western explores in his book, like the fact that blacks are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than whites, and that 60 percent of black high school dropouts are either imprisoned or ex-convicts.   Cook argues, and I tend to agree, that crafting a compelling narrative that humanizes these stats is an important, if insufficient, step toward redressing these disparities.

Of course, some people do escape urban poverty, and Cook goes on to cite yet another sociologist, this time Katherine Newman, to make this case.  In her book Chutes and Ladders (2006), Newman tracks 40 working-poor minorities across 10 years and finds that nine had been able to break into the middle class, suggesting that even at the bottom rungs of the economy, upward mobility is still possible.  Some critics of The Wire have argued that these kinds of stories are missing from this narrative, and thus it portrays the urban poor as victims incapable of rejecting the powerful forces that conspire to keep them at the bottom of the social ladder.  Yet, as Cook notes,

Newman also found that one-third of her subjects were either still unemployed or working for minimum wage, and that the decisive factor for the success stories was whether they belonged to families who could support them (or whether they didn’t need to support a family themselves). In other words, personal agency had little to do with it.

In the world created by Simon for The Wire there are very few, if any, of these sorts of supportive family networks.    For all this talk of grim reality, it may be difficult to understand why you’d choose to watch The Wire as a form of entertainment, but it is, as Cook notes, “an absolute joy to watch.”  The writing is several leagues above anything else on television, or in the theaters for that matter; the acting is superb; and the visual imagery is compelling without straining to be overly “artistic.”    Cook ends with a nod toward the dignity, even nobility, inherent in the struggle featured in the show, and again, I agree with his analysis here.  There is something ennobling about the kinds of valiant struggles these characters engage in.

Yet, for me, the piece that’s missing both from The Wire and from Cook’s analysis is the complicity, and sometimes quite overt racism, of whites (and a handful of elite blacks, like the character of Senator Clive Davis) who have created and benefit from the policies that have decimated urban centers.   For example, while there are passing references to state-level politics and even a passing reference to an ill-willed (supposedly white) Republican governor, there’s never any exploration of the connection between the racism inherent in much of the “war on drugs” and the kind of devastation of inner-city Baltimore.  Where is the white counterpart to the Senator Clive Davis character? Where, for instance, is the Grover Norquist or the Karl Rove or even, the Nelson Rockefeller? Within the context of The Wire, the “war on drugs” simply exists a priori and the show explores the consequences of such a policy on many of the residents of Baltimore.     That said, it’s a mighty fine exploration and certainly worth watching.