The Nature of Race


Reactions to The Wire were clear  something about it felt more authentic, especially in terms of race. But how can something so far removed from all of our own experience seem more realistic? It’s not like any of us know what it’s like to be an African American, Baltimore drug dealer or politician. So, instead of trying to quantify how realistic The Wire is, I started to think about why it felt more realistic than other shows, which I attest is different than actually portraying reality. What Aristotle refers to as mimesis– the imitation of nature, not nature it self. In doing I’ll discuss two issues that I feel are important in discussing race on television.

Geographical Context and Setting

The Cosby Show seemed unrealistic because in 1984, in a middle class neighborhood, it seemed a lot less feasible, to have such an educated African American family, with such an ethnically diverse group of friends who also lived in that same well-educated, middle class neighborhood. Something about it seemed contrived—and even if well intentioned—it still felt unrealistic. What I mean is—if I were going to make a TV show about our class and I casted each student with an African American actor—that wouldn’t be true to life; if I were making a TV show about the students at a traditionally African American college and casted White actors that would be inaccurate as well. Setting matters in terms of accurately portraying race. The original 90210 was criticized because the large percentage of Persian students that attended Beverly Hills High School was never portrayed. But we also should consider this, Friends was criticized for its lack of diversity—it’s hard to logically imagine a group of people who live in New York City—one of the most diverse places in the world—that only associate with others of their own race—that of course being White. But realistically we see this all the time in New York—a place that is notorious for having Little Italy, Chinatown, Little Brazil—places where people go to “stick” with their own race. Friends, 90210 and The Cosby Show lend themselves to criticism because of their location and context. Even if their representations of a group of friends or family may not actually be unrealistic—the demographics associated with their location appears unrealistic.

The Race Ratio

To token or not to token? That is the question. The desire to portray a wide spectrum of races is one that is well intentioned, but tricky. Often in trying to spread multiculturalism, we’re often left with stereotypes that are used to strategically “educate” us about other races, but in shows like Captain Planet the portrayals of race are borderline offensive.

However in shows that have a large minority cast or large White cast—we’re left with one token of the “opposite” race. But realistically, in, let’s say, a suburban neighborhood, race would be represented by de facto as having one dominant race, while another the “token.” Yet when this is represented on television it is often criticized, perhaps because when this happens, the “token” is left as a stereotype? Is it possible to have a multifaceted “token”? Moreover is it possible to have a “token” where the issue of race is never brought into play, but rather something that is simply matter-of-fact? As before when I was talking about setting, if we look in our class how many people of color are there? Not many. So the idea of a “token” isn’t unrealistic, but for some reason it feels unrealistic and it often feels offensive. At the same time, having a show where everyone is one race feels offensive too. But both of these scenarios are highly realistic, if not the most often case in terms of the average person’s day-to-day life. (Whether or not that’s good or bad is another story) So, the question is, how does The Wire deal with these things in order to create a more realistic feeling narrative.

Multifaceted Stereotypes

I have only seen, the 1st and 4th season of The Wire, but it’s clear the show handles a largely African American cast in terms of major characters. I believe, what feels realistic mostly has to do with what our mind’s can feasibly imagine, as opposed to what is actually real. It is feasible for all of us to imagine, that in the impoverished city of Baltimore, in the early 2000s, the majority of drug dealers are African American, that the city’s demographic is a majority of African Americans, and that this is logically reflected in the city’s politics. As opposed to a city like New York, where although it is highly diverse, we would (or at least I would) imagine that many of the higher ranked politicians are White.

Perhaps because there are so many shows with mostly middle-class, White casts (and for the obvious historical reasons) shows with large minority casts fair less scrutiny in terms of having “tokens.” But instead of looking at the “race ratio” in the larger context of every show, it is more important to discuss it in The Wire’s context alone. In season 4, we quite easily have the most typical representation of the same imperialistic attitudes that underscore movies like Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers and The Blind Side, however it never feels this cheap or offensive.

We have Pryz the White teacher trying to teach an underprivileged group of African American children and Carcetti running for Mayor as a White man in a Black city. But the way The Wire handles these characters differently is that they aren’t written as heroes. Carcetti wins the election– but context that win is absolutely meaningless– it doesn’t mean the day is saved, it doesn’t mean that all of Baltimore will flourish– Carcetti winning the election is more a reflection of his own character development and not a reflection or commentary on his race or anyone elses. Pryz’s attempts to help Duquan are never successful, when at the end of the season Duquan still begins to sell drugs. Here, as it often does, The Wire uses stereotypes to set-up the storyline, the stereotypes are “the givens” or the bones, that are only the structure that give life to the more meaty narrative that tells a more unique story. The Wire very strategically strays away from any ideals that would conclude “what Baltimore really needs is some White people to save it.”

It is fair to say in The Wire White people are”tokens” and African Americans are the majority. In having a show, as opposed to one like Captain Planet where everyone is a different race and therefore a mere stereotype. A show that has many characters of the same race has the advantage of having a more multifaceted portrayal of race. Specifically in season 4 we see the lives of Randy, Michael, Namond and Duquan unfold. (It is important to note that throughout the series, we see African Americans portrayed in every class from poverty to wealth and uneducated to highly educated. Many shows that portray African Americans fail to show socio-economic diversity, i.e. Good Times, The Cosby Show). The stereotype here would be having young African American males be portrayed as budding drug dealers, what removes them from 2 dimensions is the choices that they make throughout the series. Michael was the wiser one who stood away from Marlow, while Namond was eager to follow his father’s thug footsteps. The roles reverse when the show reveals the nature of these two characters as one that contends with their initial dispositions.

Here, and often, The Wire achieves a transcendence of racial undertones. We’re not compelled by the “givens” of the character, but by the way he responds and reacts, by his actions– which Aristotle might say is what truly reveals a character’s nature.

The Wire never attempts to instruct us what to believe, it simply sets up a story, existentially inserts a character and constructs a narrative that is true to that character. The reason why The Wire successfully portrays race through its multifacetedness, is because it successfully portrays human nature. It successfully represents human action and choice in a given circumstance– race is just a matter of fact.

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