by Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson
In our course on urban inequality at Harvard this semester, we want our students to understand the roots of the social conditions in America’s inner cities. To that end, we get some help from Bodie, Stringer Bell, Bubbles and others from HBO’s The Wire.
Take this scene in a Baltimore housing project from the show’s first season: Two teenage drug dealers marvel at the ingenuity of their boneless Chicken McNuggets and imagine the inventor who must have become incredibly rich off his creation. An older dealer, D’Angelo, mocks their naivete, explaining that the man who invented the McNugget is just a guy in the McDonald’s basement who dreamed up a moneymaking idea for the real players.
To D’Angelo, the formal labor market is fundamentally unfair. People are not rewarded according to their true worth, and powerful institutions regularly exploit those with less power. Social inequality is the inevitable result — the McNugget inventor doesn’t get his due. “It ain’t about right. It’s about money,” D’Angelo tells the young dealers.
The Wire, which depicted inner-city Baltimore over five seasons on HBO, shows ordinary people making sense of their world. Its complex characters on both sides of the law defy simplistic moral distinctions. Critics loved it. Its fans hung on every episode. We think it is more than just excellent television. Impressed by its treatment of complex issues, we developed a course at Harvard drawing on the show’s portrayal of fundamental sociological principles connected to urban inequality. Our seminar was designed for 30 students; four times that many showed up for the first class last week.