In Defense of The Wire

In Defense of The Wire

This is a part of a debate on The Wire. To read John Atlas and Peter Dreier’s article, click here. To read, Atlas and Dreier’s response, click here.


Although we agree that The Wire does not take on every issue relevant to life in the inner city, John Atlas and Peter Dreier do not sufficiently acknowledge its remarkable contributions. Quite simply, The Wire—even with its too-modest viewership—has done more to enhance both the popular and the scholarly understanding of the challenges of urban life and the problems of urban inequality than any other program in the media or academic publication we can think of.

Despite the show’s critical acclaim, Atlas and Dreier fault it for four reasons: (1) The Wire’s version of reality is only partly right because the show misses the positive aspects of changes brought about by collective activism; (2) The Wire reinforces white, middle-class stereotypes of inner city life; (3) the show’s characters are for the most part corrupt, cynical, and ineffective; and (4) The Wire misses what is hopeful, and therefore the show does not encourage America to change.

It is true that the grassroots organizations and activists highlighted by Atlas and Dreier are not present in full force in The Wire’s depiction of modern-day Baltimore, and in general these organizers and activists do not get the attention and credit they deserve in the mainstream media. However, the show is not remiss in focusing on the shocking inequality and injustice that persist despite the heroic efforts of these groups. According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, incarceration rates for black, male high school dropouts in their twenties and thirties are nearly fifty times the national average. Western points out that if prison and jail inmates are included among those who are out of work, the true jobless rate for black men without a high school diploma would climb from 41 percent to 65 percent. In Baltimore, one-third of the adult black male population is jobless, a figure that probably exceeds 50 percent in ghetto neighborhoods, and the urban high school graduation rate is only 34.6 percent, compared to a suburban graduation rate of 81.5 percent—a gap of 47 percentage points.

In our view, an unflinching focus on these persisting crises is not irresponsible or gratuitously cynical. To be clear, we are not taking anything away from the critical work of groups like BUILD and ACORN. We would be wary, however, of overly optimistic portrayals that present the active involvement of community groups as sufficient counterweights to entrenched structural forces, when as the above figures so clearly reveal, a deepening crisis continues to mark ghetto neighborhoods across the United States

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