Archive for the ‘Race’ category

lake trout vs squirrel brains

December 5, 2006

It’s not rash to say that dimensions of crime, race, class, cops and municipal governance, as depicted on the show’s fictional Baltimore, are far from representative of America as a whole. As Mr. Simon offered in our comments and on Slate , Baltimore’s populations are at this point, fairly black and white- the impact of Spanish-speaking populations is still yet to be determined. Language is one of the most obvious aspects of urban geography and a key example. If The Wire was set in San Diego, Houston, Phoenix or Orlando- any sun belt city, it’d be in 12 languages and on every night.


By virtue of its Baltimore setting, the urban blight on The Wire looks like what we think it should look like, because Baltimore looks like what we think a city should look like. West Baltimore is an intended urban area- whereas Pleasant Grove, Acres Homes, and North Little Rock are urban by happenstance. Corners, Corbusier towers and bombed out 19th century rowhouses make more sense as urban spaces than strip malls full of Money Trees and Dollar Generals, shotgun houses or skuzzy sprawling apartment complexes. If there’s any hard driven lesson from the show, especially in this past season, it’s to think about the way large scale operations carry out in everyday life, and by extension, to think about what they look like.

But the point of this post is that you won’t have to wonder about what another city’s Wire would be like or look like, because recommended viewing in post-season reeling this week is the mindblowing HBO doc of yore, Gang Wars: Bangin in Little Rock. In a fit of On-Demand scourging a few months back, I happened upon Back in the Hood, the 2004 follow up, which while less substantial and highly specific, is might be necessary to acquaint the unfamiliar with the world of Arkansas in 1992. Observers of The Wire point to authentic depictions of Baltimore’s linguistic idiom as a stumbling block, but seriously dudes, try Arkansas as a starting point instead of the recognizable quirks of the eastern seaboard.

Gang Wars runs under 60 minutes, and its subjects make The Wire’s kids look utterly wholesome by comparison. (Sure, gang dynamics are absent from The Wire, gangs are about more than drugs, et cetera.) Little Rock’s black Bloods and Crips are depressing and inscrutable- to say the least, and their rural-urban environment makes them seem far more hopeless. At the center of much of the narrative is the Little Rock city coroner Steve Nawojczyk, who takes up anti-gang campaigning in either spare time or official capacity. By far the most well intentioned of all of the city officials, Steve makes a poster of drive-by victims’ morgue shots, and takes it around to neighborhoods while bearing pizza and fried chicken. (For humor or to draw in white audience members, the filmmakers do diverge and spend a fair amount of time chronicling a coed, black-white Folk Nation chapter, who chant the lyrics to The Chronic, tote hunting weapons and operate on petty thefts, and may very well be the type of Arkansas youth who pick off squirrels when they get the munchies.) Gang Wars is, bizarre, fairly heartbreaking, and accurately captures the local hysteria that surrounds a sudden crime epidemic.


Copy with intent

November 10, 2006

DIB, our esteemed Nashville colleagues (they do have a song about Shoals’ ethnic ambiguity) were kind enough to report back while they were in Baltimore this week. What was most startling, they said, were the machinations of the Baltimore Believe campaign: giant podiums (and trashcans, apparently) emblazoned with “BELIEVE”, as well as constantly flashing “midnight sun” blue lights on corners, all with the overt implication of surveillance. While this season alludes to such, I’m sure none of this is new news to anyone actually in the city or familiar with it- this 2005 City Paper article is good catchup.

Once Upon a Time in America

September 21, 2006

I want to make a contentious point, and one that I don’t make for the sake of gladiatorial insinuations, or allusions of grandeur. The Wire is not only a better show, but more specifically a better show about criminality and race in the United States than The Sopranos could ever hope to be. This is not a new or novel point, and is one that many will recognize from Bill Simmons loving endorsement of our beloved Charm City saga.

While part of the horror/pleasure of mob-based narratives is always in the grisly gory tactics of intimidation and revenge matched up with the overarching mushiness of familial bonds and, of course, food, The Sopranos manages to make most of its characters ride the very thin line between sympathetic and reprehensible, without ever falling to either side. Paulie, for one, is a hot-headed, borderline retarded, psychopathic fool, yet the show does all it can to make him tolerable, comedic, and eventually forgivable. Add to this the fact that characters like Paulie and the rest of the family appear to thrive on their criminal endeavors, occasionally getting into messy scrapes but mostly earning righteous amounts of money from boosted cars, construction scams, stolen tvs, and of course, a smattering of drug sales. The Italian mob of The Sopranos is, of course, complicated with the intrusions of modernity on an essentially old-world mythology. Hence Tony’s panic attacks (the reason for his therapy) are linked to his enjoyment of cured Italian meats, to cite just one of thousands of examples. Yet those old world tropes are not completely exploded, and still inform the narrative.

One element of the old-world gangster mythology is a mistrust of black criminals, through a combination of deeply ingrained racism (suspicious for appearing in just that one scene of The Godfather, as voiced by Don Zaluchi: “they’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”) and the myth that black people make terrible criminals. In The Sopranos, black criminals are almost always depicted as bumbling, easily fooled amateurs, used only for the dirtiest of murders and framed as at best brutal and efficient and at worst as shiftless and lazy. Perhaps most importantly, in an echo of Godfather-ish stereotyping, The Sopranos commends honor on its Italian gangsters, while blacks are normally presented as lost in the godless void of the inner city.

What I would argue is that The Sopranos actually, however unselfconsciously, begins to believe in its own mythologies as the seasons go on, making more rather than less excuses for the racist, sexist and anachronistic lies that frame not only the worldviews of its characters, but the framework of the narrative itself. In the real world the days of glory for the Italian mob are long gone, with most Italian gangsters running clownish criminal enterprises, or languishing in prison, watching their families shill for reality TV. In the real world, the scary mobs are the Russians, the Balkans and the Chinese, while black criminal enterprises come in all shapes and sizes, but are by no means relegated to J.V.-level cowboy operations, stick up crews and errand boys for gangsters.

On The Wire, conversely, white criminal enterprises are often shown to be poorly thought-out blunders that inevitably call out loudly to the authorities and are easily infiltrated and prosecuted, while a range of black criminal operations show a complex shadow society for the underclass, with its own lower, middle and upper classes developing (think corner dealers, soldiers and kingpins), but also complex systems for side-stepping the legal world. The second season focused heavily on this, with Ziggy’s boneheaded drug schemes and White Mike’s incredibly easy turn from bust to turning state’s evidence contrasting with the ever-tightening Barksdale cartel. Of course the well-tuned, shadowy worlds of the Greek and the Russians remain mysterious and seemingly lucrative enterprises, while the end of Season 3 certainly destroyed any notions that the Barksdale dream was built to last. But by investigating the role of criminality in the underclass community, even displaying the complexity of black criminal organizations as rivaling their white counterparts, past or present, The Wire manages to complicate and subvert mythologies of criminality that The Sopranos just juggles and rearranges. Moreover, I believe that The Wire suggests that, however fleeting and based in iniquity, there is an honor in criminal success that exists for those deeply ensconced in the game. Wee-Bey’s uncomfortable advice for Namond is just a hint of the incredibly deft hand the writers on the show give to exploring these concepts.

This season, Marlo’s crew, small-time in comparison to the Barksdale operation, is the closest the show has anymore to an organized criminal conspiracy (though those Godfather-style round-table meetings of the city’s kingpins are still keeping their appointments, with Prop Joe looking more regal every season), yet I think it is important to wonder how the program overall has acted to infiltrate and subvert some of the dominant mythologies of organized crime that haunt our society, mythologies whose anachronism haven’t made them any less sweet to American audiences, and may have helped to preserve some of the worst ways that Americans think about race, ability and criminality.


The Increasing Significance of Race

September 18, 2006

by LittleManLevy,

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.

A real-life Carcetti slips

September 14, 2006

One of the more interesting New York elections in Tuesday’s primaries was the state’s 11th Congressional District. The 11th represents a sizeable portion of Brooklyn, and the majority of its electoral base is African-American (which, it goes without saying, means they vote Democratic, making this primary the de facto general election). Four candidates ran in the primary, three of whom were African-American. The fourth candidate, David Yassky, was white, presenting a potential problem that political scientists and, apparently, the writers of The Wire cannot get enough of: the possibility of a minority-majority district being represented by a majority-minority politician. Alas, Yassky lost yesterday — see here for more on the fallout — but the conundrums of a white politician representing a black political district will surely be an issue The Wire will grapple with this season and, by extension, one which we token scribes will have to address as well.

It’s no mystery that Carcetti is an allusion to Martin O’Malley, Baltimore’s current mayor and the Democratic nominee for Maryland’s gubernatorial election. In 2000, O’Malley, an ambitious and loquatious city councilman, won the mayoral election against two African-American opponents. Although there was no incumbent in that election — the former mayor Kurt Schmoke had exhausted his term limiits — there was no question that O’Malley benefitted from the two African-American candidates splitting Baltimore’s black base, a formidable voting bloc constituting two-thirds of the city’s population. It bears mentioning, however, that O’Malley won 53% of the vote (cf. here) indicating he had political strength greater than Carcetti, who, given his tantrums and depressing poll numbers, will almost certainly need a plurality to eek out a victory.

My prediction: Tony Gray, the dark horse, improves as the season goes along, pulling votes from Royce. I give Carcetti the election — he’s got to win, right? — with 36% of the vote, with the remaining 64% split evenly between Royce and Gray.

The Great White Hope

September 13, 2006

Let’s talk about Tommy Carcetti.

Like McNulty (that is, McNulty before his rebirth as a happy-go-lucky beat cop), he’s a white man trying to reform the system in a black city.

Christy already mentioned that David Simon sees the basic story of The Wire as a conflict between people and the corrupt system that is theoretically supposed to serve them. What she didn’t mention is that the system, in Baltimore, is black. Most of the reformers, by my count, are white.

I’ve been considering today whether my favorite show might be at least a little bit racist, if only in a well-intenioned, Bill Cosby sort of way.

(I guess I haven’t said much, but somebody had to start the conversation about race!)