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Should Harvard teach ‘The Wire’? | Ishmael Reed

No, it relies on clichés about blacks and drugs

By Ishmael Reed
September 30, 2010

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ONE OF the many problems with “The Wire’’ is that creator David Simon relies on clichés to depict blacks. It’s like doing a series about Jews and presenting only inside traders or judging the residents of Charlestown by Ben Affleck’s “The Town,’’ which at least has a disclaimer that the film doesn’t represent the Irish-American population. HBO should tackle something new. How about depicting the family life of a suburban gun dealer who is sending illegal weapons into city neighborhoods?

Of course, Simon’s defenders point out that some middle class blacks appear in the series, but those blacks are not the reason that people tune in. They like the shootouts and the drug sales and the underclass gangs fighting each other.

And now, professors at Harvard University are teaching “The Wire’’ in their courses. It figures. For years, the attitude of some members of its faculty toward “the black underclass,’’ has been, in the words of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of “tough love,’’ prompting some sarcastic and often cruel public comments about this segment of the black population.

The main reason that I oppose the teaching of “The Wire’’ is that it joins other shows such as “Training Day,’’ “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans,’’ and “Brooklyn’s Finest’’ in locating drug use and distribution in the inner city, when most of it occurs elsewhere.

While cocaine use among black teenagers is on the decline, it is on the rise for white teens, according to a 2009 New York Times story. Heroin epidemics have hit the suburbs around the country. Another myth promoted by “The Wire’’ and other shows is that while crack is a black drug, whites use powder cocaine. Whites of all classes do crack. Plenty of it. They just don’t get sentenced as much for possessing it.

Professors at Harvard, as well as Berkeley and other universities, teach hot courses built around sensational popular culture like hip-hop and crime shows as a way of filling seats in their classrooms. Not too many students are signing up for courses in Old Norse.

A Berkeley professor said that there was even anthropological interest in teaching “The Wire,’’ as though blacks were members of an Amazon tribe instead of members of American society.

“The Wire’’ is not anthropology, it’s not sociology, and it’s not race relations. It’s entertainment — and not very good at that — and should have no place in our universities.

Ishmael Reed is professor emeritus at University of California Berkeley. His latest book is “Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media.’’

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