Open University

Just Off The Wire


by John McWhorterRevisiting the topic of series on HBO, my wife and I have been mesmerized by the first three seasons of "The Wire." The show chronicles Baltimore detectives' pursuit of criminals with a richness of detail and nuance that makes the show very much a filmed novel.

The show is, for one, a magnificent demonstration of the futility of the War on Drugs. The kingpins run their organizations with the diligence and tenacity of any entrepreneurs, and continue pulling strings from prison. There are always kids as young as thirteen ready to replace runners sent to jail. There is always a vast market for the product. The war has less chance of being won than the one in Iraq.

However, I was disappointed by the book on the series (The Wire: Truth Be Told). It turns out that the show's creator David Simon intends an additional lesson: that the flight of low-skill jobs from cities leaves young men with, essentially, no choice but to turn to lives of crime. We are supposed to come away from the series thinking that the black drug runners in season one are plying the trade because there aren't factory jobs waiting for them a bus ride away like there were for their grandfathers. In season two, white Ziggy and Nick can barely get by as longshoremen because technology has thinned traffic to a trickle in the harbor. Simon's lesson, presumably, is that this leaves them with little choice but to drift into selling drugs, with tragic consequences.

This is a lesson many social scientists consider a precious wisdom on, particularly, the state of Black America. The problem is that research doesn't bear it out.

Rather, studies by social scientists such as Harry Holzer and James H. Johnson have shown that factory relocation was responsible for at most a third of the rise in unemployment of uneducated young men in the 1980s. Cities where factory relocation was minimal have seen the same problems with unemployment and drug vending as ones like Baltimore--Indianapolis is a useful demonstration. A causal, as opposed to correlational, relationship between these problems and deindustrialization has not been demonstrated.

Overall, the literature on this issue grapples with the sad fact that the problem is less that jobs for people without B.A.s are unavailable (say, as sound technicians, mechanics, building inspectors, repairmen, mail carriers) than that a wide range of factors discourage people from finding and taking them. When it comes to the emergence of the underclass, blame applies widely. Just thumbing our nose at globalization misses that--and distracts us from real solutions.

Interestingly, the writing and acting on "The Wire" are so very good that what comes through is a much more nuanced message than Simon apparently intended. I think this is also because actually watching written characters so richly written and portrayed in such situations makes it hopelessly clear that the idea that factories moving to the suburbs turns a community into a war zone simply does not describe actual human beings.

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