Monday, March 5, 2012

Fictional Gloss and Brutal System

Faithful longtime readers of this blog know that one topic I've returned to multiple times is the HBO series The Wire. One of the topics I've considered on numerous occasions is the show's portrayal of African Americans. (See, for example, "Watching the Detectives," "Black American Lives and The Wire," and "The Wire and Winter's Bone.")

I thought of The Wire and those posts this evening when I read this paragraph in Michelle Alexander's 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.

We may think we know how the criminal justice system works. Television is overloaded with fictional dramas about police, crime, and prosecutors—shows such as Law & Order. These fictional dramas, like the evening news, tend to focus on individual stories of crime, victimization, and punishment, and stories are typically told from the point of view of law enforcement. A charismatic police officer, investigator, or prosecutor struggles with his own demons while heroically trying to solve a horrible crime. He ultimately achieves a personal and moral victory by finding the bad guy and throwing him in jail. That is the made-for-TV version of the criminal justice system. It perpetuates the myth that the primary function of the system is to keep our streets safe and our homes secure by rooting out dangerous criminals and punishing them. These television shows, especially those that romanticize drug-law enforcement, are the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves, the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppression and control.

I want to think more about the extent to which Alexander's point applies to The Wire.

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