The Increasing Significance of Race
After reading over last week’s posts, it occurred to me that for a show whose primary focus is the black urban underclass, the first three seasons of the Wire had remarkably little to say on the subject of race. The blackness or whiteness of individual characters is rarely brought to the viewer’s attention; racial inequality is represented in the landscape, but never enters as an object of critique. The dysfunctions of the institutional power structures are what keep the plot moving and the city miserable, and for the first three seasons, these dysfunctions are essentially colorless.
In the first two episodes of Season 4, however, these power structures are presented in overtly racial terms. Herc laments about how his black partner will again make rank before he does; Perelman worries that a black DA will “bounce the white girl…and give the narcotics division to one of their own”; and Tommy Carcetti repeats his sorry dirge about waking up white in a city that ain’t. As one of us has already pointed out, it is easy to watch this episode and conclude that “the system is black” in Baltimore – that its corruption is a corruption of black influence and self-interest. But when we stop and consider the events of Seasons 1-3, how much evidence for this conclusion really exists? In the first season, Daniels lost his promotion to a white lieutenant (Cantrell); Royce’s first police commissioner was white, as was his intended replacement until Valcheck – in exchange for the Sobotka detail – intervened on behalf of Burrell; as the portraits in city hall testify, all but one of Baltimore’s former mayors have been white as well.
If the racial anxieties expressed in Season Four are significant, it is not for their validity, but for their objective consequences. Insofar as white opportunities appear closed under a black administration, those who feel aggrieved will be motivated to replace it. One of the big questions about the dead witness leak in Episode 2 was whether Landsman dialed Valchek directly, or whether he went through Rawls. However irresponsible, my speculation is that Rawls was involved, believing that a white mayor is his only chance at further promotion. Here, race really could become an impediment for reform in Baltimore. For if Carcetti is to win, he will need more favors from his informants, and these favors will require repayment. Given the chance to promote an actual reformer like Daniels or Colvin, he’ll have to settle for just a different color of status quo.
This is the first instance where racial polarization could become a self-fulfilling prophecy; a second is Carcetti’s campaign. In addition to informants, Carcetti will also need votes, and D’Agostino’s remark about Spiro Agnew and the 1968 riots gave a hint at how he might get them. It was by lashing out at the black community and rejecting its leaders as criminals that Agnew, a one-time moderate Democrat, famously caught the eye of the Nixon campaign, and propelled both himself and the race-baiting “Southern Strategy” onto the national stage. As it stands now, Carcetti’s law-and-order platform seems largely innocent and sincere. But as the campaign heats up, I have a feeling this will change.
Update: Just saw Episode 3 – they just keep getting better! A few quick thoughts: 1) Is Major Crimes really dead? Will nothing come of those subpoenas? 2) That scene between McNulty and Bunk brought tears to my eyes. After he didn’t show up once in the last episode, I thought I was over him. I was wrong. 3) Who is Rawls going to demote from homicide? If its Landsman or that other guy, I withdraw my theory about the leak. 4) Let me be the first to confirm it: the academy LOVES Bunny Colvin.