On Reading The New Jim Crow While Watching The Wire

I’ve been struggling a lot with writing recently. In particular, I have about 8 titles/ideas for blog posts in my head, and yet I have written exactly none of them.

I’ve watched all of (and completely fallen in love with) Orange is the New Black. I went to a vigil for Trayvon Martin. I’ve read a lot about Trayvon Martin. I have been angry and felt sad and talked about Trayvon Martin. I have not done enough for Trayvon Martin. I became more in tune with my math research. I discovered Ani DiFranco and The Indigo Girls (I know, I know, super late on this gay train). I’ve encountered a lot of new blogs, read a ton, and been generally present. I wrote a poem!

In short, everything is very exciting (not in that everything is good, but in that many things are happening all the time and they tend to be thought-provoking and/or feelings-inducing).

Among these things is that I have finally gotten around to doing two things which have been recommended to me over and over again: watch The Wire, and read The New Jim Crow. If you are unfamiliar, The Wire was a television show that ran from 2002 to 2008 about the Baltimore Police Department’s struggle with a local drug ring. People I know (typically, white liberals) love the show for its evenhanded portrayal of both the BPD and the crime lords–the viewer is meant to empathize with both sides of the struggle–and for how far-reaching it is; each season of the show changes focus, from the neighborhood to the docks to the school system, and illustrates how far-reaching drug crimes are within the community. The New Jim Crow is a book by Michelle Alexander about how the conservative movement have systematically used prisons and the War on Drugs to incarcerate black people in place of slavery or Jim Crow laws.

Before I delve in, I want to note that I am a white woman. While I have known people who have struggled with drug addiction and been in prison, I’ve never been well educated on the details. I don’t know a ton about this issue, and I’m using Alexander’s book to educate myself. Everything I know about the prison industrial complex, more or less, comes from what I’ve read. Mostly, I’m writing this in an attempt to think more critically about this TV show everyone I know seems to love so much. Without further ado, then…

Since The Wire has been off air for more than five years now, and The New Jim Crow was released just last year, I haven’t found anything online comparing the two. But I must admit: reading Alexander’s scathing critique on the War on Drugs as a tool to enforce racism makes The Wire hard to stomach. Sure, it lends a sympathetic ear to those involved in the drug trade–many involved are children who would rather go to college than sell drugs, and even some of the grown men make noble (though ultimately futile) attempts to get out of the business–but it does not delve into the complicated history that Alexander outlines for why this system exists. The men in The Wire sell drugs because that’s what their fathers did before them, and presumably their fathers before that. The show makes it sound as though this struggle (to sell drugs illegally and evade the police) has been going on for centuries; however, as Alexander points out, the War on Drugs was announced by Ronald Reagan in 1982 and it is only afterwards that crack cocaine is introduced and popularized in poor black communities.

Most astonishing sentence so far? There are a lot of them, but this one really got me: “During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), ‘effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor'” (p.57). WHAT THE F*CK.

Of course the police on the Wire aren’t perfect. They work so hard their wives get mad at them, and then they have affairs. But they are sure to secure warrants before tapping wires and avoid reckless stopping and searching, and state again and again that they don’t really care about the drug crimes: what drives their work is the homicide that comes with it. Which is nice, for a TV show, but doesn’t reflect Alexander’s reality. Stop and frisk laws allow police to search individuals at will, and by “individuals” I mean “people of color.” Alexander describes how cops have used minute traffic violations as an excuse to pull over people of color and search their vehicles for drugs–even though the hypothetical drugs have nothing to do with the so-called “crime” they were pulled over for. Police departments are given millions of dollars in funding (and military-grade weapons) for their pursuit of drug criminals. Furthermore, while The Wire police typically use street dealers to try and gain information about the major ringleaders, Alexander points out that the idea that “the war is aimed at ridding the nation of drug ‘kingpins’ or big-time dealers” is a myth; “The vast majority of those arrested are not charged with serious offenses. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.”

I suppose it’s no wonder that, while reading Alexander’s book, I have trouble watching The Wire. The show attempts to depict the war as a battle between two half-goods-half-evils. Two merely different ways of life. But, as The New Jim Crow makes abundantly clear, the War on Drugs is about so much more than that: it is systematic racism, encapsulated. I still have most of the book left to go, and two seasons of The Wire, and while I’m looking forward to learning more, I don’t anticipate that it will get any easier.

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