David Simon once called his HBO series, The Wire, “a political tract masquerading as a cop show.” Think of it as a five season, 3600 minute, artistic depiction of the escalating breakdown of urban society. The show is art. But it is also life in the biggest sense. And it’s why some thinkers have likened the epic series to (or even elevated it above) Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Now comes this… According to The Harvard Crimson, William J. Wilson, a Harvard sociology professor, will teach a new course that uses The Wire as “a case study for poverty in America,” saying that “The Wire has done more to enhance our understanding of the systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the poor than any published study.” If you haven’t seen this series, and if this whets your appetite, you can find a nice deal on Amazon. The full series now goes for $125.00, 50% off the list price.
“enhance our understanding of the systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the poor”? Is this really difficult to understand? Work hard and act morally and you'll have plenty of opportunity to improve your situation. I'm sure nearly all of the college students who will attend this course had ancestors that did just that when they came to the US.
Hanoch — your observation is ironic to the point that I initially thought you were being sarcastic. You have defined, unwittingly, one of the themes that David Simon so convincingly presents — namely, that those who “work hard and act morally” often have zero opportunity to improve their “situation.” If you grow up in the wrong part of town, on the wrong side of the socio-economic divide, by the time you reach junior high school you will have learned well that the only avenues of escape from the concrete hedgerows of your blighted urban neighborhoods — to “improve your situation,” as you put it in language right out Dickens — lie with the drug suppliers, the union thugs in the shipyard, the 12-year-old drug dealers hawking dime bags on street corners, and the junkies who strip copper pipe from rat-infested slums to try and raise enough money for just one more hit of heaven courtesy of a needle and a spoon.
Seriously, have you watched The Wire?
The problem with your suggestion of “zero opportunity” is that it is not supported by fact. If you look at immigrant groups in the US over history up through today, you will see that nearly all started “in the wrong part of town” and “on the wrong side of the socio-economic divide”. In addition to abject poverty, most of them had to deal with additional burdens of discrimination from a far more racist society than exists today and language barriers. Yet over a generation or two, these groups overwhelmingly graduated to the middle class and beyond. Thus, the notion that “the only avenues of escape” from poverty are criminal ones is patently untrue. Unfortunately, these myths are perpetuated for a number of reasons that have little or nothing to do with a real concern for the welfare of the poor.
It's not that there is “zero opportunity.” It's more like, opportunity is scarce. Plus, the moral drives and motivation in the ghetto are probably not something you can properly comprehend because you are completely ignorant of their culture.
They call it “living on the margins” for a reason. The people who are classified as the margin are considered worthless to society. Their deeper cultural values are shaky so, why give them an opportunity when they're almost guaranteed to fail.
At the end of the day everybody has to eat. Either you can: work like a slave at a fast food joint and get paid scratch; slang dope on the street and climb the social chain of the hood to better cars/cred/women; or you can break away from the culture and climb out of the hood only to find out that you just jumped from a big fish in a small pond to a very small fish in a huge pond.
Obviously, there's a way out of the hood. It's evident in the fact that most white people from the suburbs have the “I have a black friend” card up their sleeve nowadays when they're hit with the “race” card. :)
There's just so much room for improvement and untapped potential in these people that is being lost. Our nation's culture has immense resources and opportunities available to all. Success stories across even the marginal social circles should be the norm not the exception.
Unfortunately, for the intellectual elite, their story won't be written in this generation or maybe even the next (Native Son doesn't count because it's satire).
The fact that a TV series provides the source material for an Ivy League school proves how far removed the gated communities are detached from the real/raw side of our culture that everybody turns a blind eye to.
Not wanting to pile on, but Evan has made my point much more eloquently than I could have. There's no doubt that assimilation was tough, and that there were tremendous barriers for each wave of immigrants — Irish, Italian, Eastern European. We agree completely about this, and so does (seemingly) David Simon, who makes this point repeatedly throughout the various seasons of The Wire.
What's happened, according to Simon, is that the institutions that once made assimilation possible have broken down to the point where crime really is the only viable option for a huge number poor young people living in inner cities. Each season of the show takes a look at different institutions that had, until quite recently, served to help provide an avenue of escape: city hall, with its patronage system; the schools; the criminal justice system; and, in a scathing final season, the mainstream media.
The result, as Simon put it in numerous interviews, is that a whole subculture became worthless and invisible. As Evan points out, there are very legitimate ways to climb out of the ghetto, and plenty of incentives (thanks to the money from drugs) to stay in.
The Wire is a remarkable show. I hope you'll spend some time with it, mainly because I think you'll find agreement to many of the objections you're making along with an appreciation for the fact that we're faced with complex, multi-layered problems (many of them of our own making) with very few solutions. There are exceptions to every rule, and dogmatic stances are avoided. The writers — Simon, Ed Burns (former cop and teacher), and novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelicanos, and Richard Price — know this territory so well that they have created a testament worthy of study at Harvard.
And hey, look at us! We're discussing ordinarily hot issues in a civil, intelligent, and respectful manner on a Web forum. Maybe there's hope for us yet!
Thanks for sharing….
Oops — see below Evan's post. Sorry.