It’s not exactly a typical day in class, even an upper-level sociology class geared towards the grittiest of urban realities.
The room is filled with the sound of gunfire. A projection screen shows a quartet of inner-city drug thieves pinned down behind a parked car. Each reloads his and her weapon. Their leader, the scarred and unflappable Omar Little, gives them a look and says, “Y’all ready? Let’s bang out.”
The four stand up, fire back in unison, and execute a retreat, with one killed by friendly fire.
Professor Gregory Hooks stops the tape. The room goes quiet.
“And why’d we watch that?” he asks.
The drama on the screen is from season three of The Wire, the critically acclaimed HBO series portraying the turmoil of drugs, work, poverty, politics, education, and journalism in contemporary Baltimore. The class is Sociology 496, a capstone course focusing on issues of social justice and service. And the main reason everyone is watching Omar and company bang it out in a rain of bullets? The Wire is, to quote the syllabus, “the equivalent of a textbook.”
Added bonus: The class’s service component includes arranging a visit by the show’s producer, David Simon, and one of WSU’s most accomplished alumni, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson (PhD, Sociology, 1966).
The program’s entertainment value aside, it’s a challenging class, with The Wire presenting an unvarnished view of the nation’s underclass and the forces that constrain it: inner-city neighborhoods with such rampant unemployment that drug dealing is as much an industry as a pox; a War on Drugs that has succeeded chiefly in locking up nonviolent offenders, most of whom are black; and a capitalist system that is valuing labor, and humanity, less and less.
Simon, a former Baltimore Sun police reporter, said The Wire is fundamentally about the “triumph of capitalism, when human beings matter less.”
“Capitalism is a wonderful tool for generating wealth, for generating mass wealth,” he said in a news conference while in Pullman to receive the William Julius Wilson Award for the Advancement of Social Justice. “It’s probably the only tool we have in the toolbox economically. But anyone who thinks it’s a metric for building a just and coherent society is just out of their minds.”
While the show grows out of what Simon saw on the streets, parts of it are rooted in sociology, with the economic woes of the waterfront-oriented second season inspired by Wilson’s When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor.
“I’ve received many awards over the years,” said Wilson, who visited Pullman as part of Simon’s appearance, “but nothing compared to that.”
The mix of academic study, which includes Wilson’s book, and urban drama is potent. Throughout the semester, the 18 or so students were consistently engaged and talkative, even if they were a bit more world-weary for it. One morning, after some spirited discussion about educational and economic opportunity, Hooks recalled Wilson’s visit when he said he has never felt so pessimistic. When Wilson asked how many students believed in the American dream, that if you work hard you will get ahead, no one raised his or her hand.