Arguably the greatest boundary in addressing issues around race in the United States is a lack of transparency. Many conservatives believe that the solution to poverty in inner-city areas that host drug use and gang violence is stronger policing. Many liberals call foul on this claim and say that police violence is one of the greatest issues in modern times. Although such a claim has much merit, the problem with the focus on policing is a lack of focus on the true problem: institutionalized racism. Since the Civil Rights era, the general zeitgeist in America has been one of progress and friendship between all races, a sentiment that many white Americans truly share. Many believe that racism is over in America, especially since the election of President Barack Obama. Although there are many in our country who are overtly racist and believe that whites are under attack in today’s “politically correct” America, they are not the only perpetrators of racism today. In fact, many who claim to be “PC” and blind to racial prejudice are not only as bad as those with overt biases; they also tend to impede upon any progress due to their beliefs that racism does not apply to them.
To solve racism, especially in the criminal justice system, honesty is required. Racism needs to be accepted as a part of the American psyche, a country that was founded with the institution of slavery as a facet of its economy. A country founded through the genocide of the virtual entirety of the native population of America. An America who elected a man who claims that unconstitutional stop-and-frisk laws, which target black and brown men, are essential to keeping inner cities safer. If “The Wire” is anything, it is truthful, and it’s racist, showing the raw and uncomfortable side to America that many don’t want to accept.
A clear example of this truth discussed in the earlier part of this review is revealed through the show’s protagonist, James McNulty. He, and the other members of the major crimes team, uses racism as a tool to catch the bad guys. And what’s unsettling is how much progress they make from it. Many of the members of the major crimes team are black. The show’s creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, were dedicated to making race relations in Baltimore as real as possible, which includes making the show’s cast mostly black, which matches the demographics of Baltimore.
All of the detectives target black people in their drug investigations for one reason: that’s who they are after. In the second season of the show, the team investigates into a Port Union (which will be discussed in later issues), which mostly consists of blue-collar white men. However, they are not investigating into their drug use, and barely make any arrests in the white neighborhood surrounding the port. That is because in the first season, it’s a game of cops and robbers, or cops and drug dealers.
The police department needs to make a big show out of their arrests, and the heads of the department demand “Dope on the table,” a literal term meaning a visible display of progress with the department. This can come in a display of drugs, guns, or money. But what is most important is that it’s a black guy who goes to jail, which, in the show, it almost always is. The point for Simon and Burns, two well-seasoned veterans of this corrupt world, is that this is how the system works. No matter who is actually selling the drugs, or taking the drugs, or how many people are committing crimes, it’s always the black communities that are painted as the criminals.
The police department knows that this is their demographic. They know racism is legal in the War on Drugs. In many episodes, the police pull up on a corner, the dealers yell “Five-O,” and the dealers run. The cops grab them, arrest them, take them to jail, and nothing ever changes. Throughout the series, almost every big-time drug dealer either gets killed or stays in power. If any die or get arrested, some other dealer comes in and takes over. In some cases, crime actually gets worse after one dealer falls. The kings are dead; long live the kings.
This cycle is also very apparent in the show’s portrayal of drug use. Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins (Andre Royo) is introduced early into the show as a junkie who spies on the dealers for the police in exchange for drug money. Over time, the department members actually becomes very comfortable with Bubbles, some of them actually befriending him and doing favors for him. Bubbles’ timeline is one of the most interesting yet objective aspects of the show. Bubbles lives on the streets but works for the police. As the “heroes” of the show are catching the “villains” of the show, and regimes rise and fall and crime goes from bad to worse, the viewer is often given Bubbles’ view and experiences. Bubbles tries many times throughout the series to reform and get clean. But he fails and fails and fails to get clean and continues to use. Almost immediately, one of Bubbles’ good friends is beaten to near death by dealers whom he tries to steal from. Bubbles sees how drugs can ruin lives on a daily basis, but he still uses. It’s Bubbles’ storyline that prompts the viewers to think, “Why would someone go to jail for this?” He is alone. He is lost. He is addicted. Everyone who is important to him either gets sucked in by the streets or leaves him. No wonder he’s addicted to drugs.
In the third season, “stats” become a huge theme. Stats, in this case, are department-mandated quotas that each precinct needs to meet. This does not actually prompt any one precinct to actually do any positive good. Either a precinct is stripped of resources and performs worse, or a precinct hyper-polices and just causes the dealers to get smarter with their trafficking. It is a clearly broken system that runs on assumedly clear guidelines. More arrests mean less crime, right?
But, a character with departmental power attempts to change this in the third season. Not to spoil too much, he tries very illegal methods to reduce murders, and they work. This shocking display of clear “misuse” of power actually makes positive change that legal and “just” methods never could. This is one of the many ways that “The Wire” prods the viewer to really consider why things are the way they are. Why is there a War on Drugs? Why do people go to jail for drug use? Why are inner cities policed so heavily when the problem is clearly impoverishment and abandonment, not drug use? As Simon said, the aim of the “The Wire” is not to make any societal change, but more so to shine a light on policing and say, “Why is the accepted belief that more of the same thing will solve a problem?” The problem in this country is not the police. It’s not drugs. It’s not crime. The problem is that we take cops and black people and say, “These people are enemies,” instead of looking at the institutional shackles that both groups are bound to. And if the police are obligated to police black people, how could black people possibly be free?
This article is the second installment of a multi-part “The Wire” review, and is also a part of a weekly column called “Revival Reviews.” (Click here for Part One and here for Part Three). The column is primarily focused on shows that have aired over the past 10 years and intends to explore shows that may have been too mature at the time of their premiere for current Wes students.