Editor’s Note: Last week in this space, guest blogger Carlo Rotella positioned The Wire in the history of the televisual crime drama, an evolution in narrative form that he argued reflects changing police practices and attitudes towards crime. In this week’s installment of “The Wire at Ten,” Points welcomes Sergio Campos, Associate Professor of law at The University of Miami. His current official research focuses on civil procedure and federal courts topics, mostly surrounding the class action. But his first article was on subordination, and we were able to persuade him to blog for us by promising him he could return to that subject here.
My prior article, while far from perfect, was my attempt to distinguish subordination from discrimination. In my view, which I still hold, subordination can be understood as the prevalence of a de facto caste system. I argued that a commitment to ending subordination (an antisubordination principle, for short) should focus not on groups, but on eradicating social positions in which persons are permanently disadvantaged. That is, if someone is born into a social position which entails an inherent ceiling on their opportunities to live a decent life, then some form of affirmative action is needed to get rid of that position. Accordingly, I argued that while discrimination may cause subordination, subordination may also be caused by other seemingly innocent activity (and vice versa). Moreover, eradicating subordinated social positions may entail both benefiting and burdening individuals who had nothing to do with creating the subordinated social position.
This sounds incredibly abstract, but I think a good example can be found in fourth season of The Wire, which focused on the Baltimore public school system. The season opens with four junior high friends, Michael, Namond, Duquan (“Dukie”), and Randy, playing together before starting eighth grade. We learn that Namond is the son of Wee-Bey Brice, a former enforcer for the Barksdale gang who is incarcerated for multiple drug-related murders in Season 1. The others have very dicey family situations, with Michael effectively raising himself and his little brother, Randy in a foster home, and Dukie taking care of his drug addict mother. Dukie has it the hardest, and during the season is teased constantly for his lack of clean clothes, while kindhearted adults try to make sure that he has food and school supplies. The show, in my view intentionally, depicts Namond as the least likable of the four. Due to his father’s reputation and his drug-related wealth, he is a spoiled brat who talks a big game but can’t back it up. In contrast, each of the other three children try to cope with impossible situations.
As the season progresses Randy, Michael, and Dukie become victims of the inadequacies of social services. Randy, already in a foster home, witnesses a murder and tries to do the right thing by cooperating with the police. The police, however, have neither the time nor the resources to protect him, and an arsonist burns down his foster home. Michael starts to work out at a boxing gym with Cutty Wise, an ex-con trying to turn his life around. Although he excels at boxing, he needs more help when his abusive stepfather returns unannounced. Against his own good judgment, Michael seeks the help of a drug gang enforcer, Chris Paltrow, because he cannot depend on the police, and later becomes an enforcer himself. The most heartbreaking story revolves around Dukie, who is assigned to a math class taught by a former police officer, Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski. Prez discovers that Dukie has a real aptitude for math, and unearths an unused (and brand-new) computer in the public school’s storage so that he can do more advanced projects. Dukie’s home life, however, deteriorates to the point that he moves in with Michael to become, in effect, the nanny for Michael’s little brother. Dukie eventually drops out of school and, at the conclusion of season five, he becomes a drug addict.
Namond, however, avoids the misfortune of his friends. Namond is selected to take part in a study for disruptive students. The study segregates unruly students from the rest of their classmates, and the group is taught separately by, among others, former police officer Howard “Bunny” Colvin. In season 3 Colvin, as a major and commander of the Western District of Baltimore, tried to create a zone in Baltimore, called Hamsterdam, where drug dealing was essentially legalized. Hamsterdam succeeded in reducing violent crime in the projects, but the zone itself was hellish and eventually was shut down.
Here Bunny tries to channel his desire to improve things by working with the kids directly to get them on the right track. Some students are so abused that any intervention requires more than classroom. But others, including Namond, respond to the program, so much so that Colvin adopts Namond as his own son. At the end of season five we learn that Namond has become an honor student and left his former life behind.
These four characters show vividly the effects of subordination. Each are conscientious and talented, and, we can imagine, would have all been really successful in life with the right support and guidance. But their positions at the start of the show (and, obviously, since birth) preordain the paths they all eventually take. There is a telling moment in the series when Cutty is trying to think of ways to help Michael and prevent him from becoming the enforcer that Cutty himself used to be. But when Cutty mentions that all he knows is boxing, you can feel the limitations placed on him by the poverty and segregation of the ghetto. Not even well-intentioned adults like Cutty know about alternative paths like going to college, becoming a professional, or even the possibility of leaving. The ghetto colonizes their world from top to bottom. This is also made clear in a really touching scene where Colvin takes a few of the kids in the study to an upscale restaurant. Instead of being happy, they are embarrassed to be there because they don’t know what to do.
It is worth noting that The Wire rarely depicts any overt discrimination, along either racial or gender lines (sexual orientation is another matter). Although the vast majority of the perpetrators and the victims of the drug trade are black, so are many of the police officers and government officials. Moreover, some of the best cops and enforcers are female. In season 3 it is suggested that Baltimore can only elect a black mayor, only to see a white mayor, Tommy Carcetti, get elected.
Instead of articulating a critique of discrimination, I think The Wire tries to indict the ghetto itself as not just the site but also the cause of subordination. Although some individuals, most notably the homicide detective Bunk Moreland, are able to leave it, the ghetto looms large as the entire universe for its inhabitants. It turns its best citizens, like Michael or Omar, into pieces in the game. In my previous article on subordination, I argued (or tried to argue) that, for purposes of subordination, a focus on groups or personal identity was too narrow. Subordination may arise from other social forces, and in the article I specifically identified the ghetto as one possible subordinating structure. Admittedly, race and personal identity do play a role in subordinating the persons that inhabit the West Baltimore slums of The Wire. But if the city of Baltimore is the real main character in The Wire, then I think the show also sees the ghetto as the primary cause of disadvantage. It is the ghetto that primarily determines the fate of the show’s characters, moreso than any other social force.
But if the ghetto is the cause of subordination, it is probably impossible to tailor a solution to help those who are most deserving. And here is where the cruelty of allowing Namond to escape, but not Randy, Michael, or Dukie, comes in. The ending of season 4 is bittersweet in that we applaud Colvin for taking in Namond; given our knowledge of Colvin’s back story, we are aware that it will take the generosity and creativity of more Colvins to change the social structure of the ghetto. However, his efforts are far from perfect, and here we can only lament that Namond’s escape, however miraculous it is, leaves behind many who are far more deserving. That is certainly true of affirmative action in real life, which in some cases does not help the most deserving, but still is a necessary step in changing the social position of many racial minorities.
Namond’s escape, however, also created in me a sense of profound self-consciousness about my own situation. Had Dukie been saved, I think many like me would have felt at least some hope, however small, that something can be done about the subordinating conditions of the ghetto. But in saving Namond, the least deserving of the four, the show made me aware that I am equally less deserving of being saved while others like Michael, Dukie, and Randy must suffer. Thus, I think Namond’s rescue was intentional, because it inspired in me, and I am guessing many other audience members who can afford HBO, an awareness that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”