Sunday, February 17, 2008

It's a Different World

As is my habit, I watched HBO's The Wire on Sunday night.

It was an interesting episode with several plots coming together quickly. Like most viewers, I'm wondering if Omar's gamble will pay off and if McNulty has finally done enough to get fired and possibly arrested.

But, what really got my attention was a theme running through the episode about the different worlds that different people occupy in our society.

There were obvious examples, like the reporters and police officers struggling to infiltrate the world of the homeless, or Michael and Dukie pondering exactly what code the classifieds ads in the newspaper were written in.

But, the most telling scenes for me came in the courtroom and the newsroom.

It was illuminating to watch that silver-tongued snake Clay Davis beguile and eventually co-opt the state's attorney's jury. Davis knew exactly which terms would play with the working class black folks on his jury: the daily struggle to make ends meet, the fierce defiance even when wrong, the anger at those who seem to be living a cushy life and finally the over-arching feeling that white folks aren't playing the game fair.

It was interesting not only to watch the state's attorney's reaction, but also the reaction of a white reporter in the newsroom to Davis' performance. Gus, the black city editor, noted that Clay had played the race card and the whole deck to steal the show, and the white reporter’s response made it clear he felt adrift in a world where his racial roadmap was useless.

There was a clear sense of surprise, bewilderment and even superiority in the reporter’s comment that he felt “mighty white” when the verdict came down. (Just for the record, I hate the phrase “race card” and think it was incorrectly used by the writer.)


It's a funny thing how race divides our worlds. I recently read a book entitled "Black Lives, White Lives" written by Bob Blauner in 1989. It's a collection of interviews with white people and black people in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s about the racial climate in America during each of those eras. Several individuals were interviewed at different intervals to see how their ideas about different races evolved.

One of the best aspects of the book is the way it lays bare different psyches and world views. One white business man posited that the reason why America has had so many problems with black people is because slave traders snatched up the easier to catch "Congo niggers" instead of the more powerful and noble Zulus. The Congo niggers were more malleable, but possessed more of less-desirable black traits, which explained the state of black people.

But, a black woman explained that because she had cleaned white people's houses all her life she knew without a shadow of a doubt that the prevailing view that blacks are genetically inferior is false. She noted that working inside the belly of the beast had allowed her watch every economic strata of white life, and she easily outlines what black people should expect from each group.

A white woman who worked with black people bemoaned the "Negro sense of entitlement" that was obvious in blacks' angry push to have every wrong against them righted immediately, instead of waiting their turn like every other mistreated immigrant group in America had once done.


A black man in 1960s California (where some of the interviews took place) notes that the belief by blacks there that their lives are so much better than Negroes in the South is clear evidence of how low the bar has been set for black happiness.

It’s an interesting read.

Like many black people, I've spent much of my life observing white people. My current career as a journalist has given me even more time to watch and learn, both in person and from afar through the accounts of others.

My vantage point has confirmed that blacks and whites often occupy different worlds, each with its own set of rules, norms and assumptions. The worlds overlap now more than they ever have, but they are still obviously separate. Too often, blacks and whites are seeking to solve complex, enduring problems in this country while speaking a different language born of different accepted realities.

Clay Davis' case was a clear example of that. It was obvious to me that Davis got off because he and his lawyer tapped into the common experiences of the jurors; the sense that the deck is stacked against them and that they are too often targeted to be examples in a world filled with corruption.

Combining "aw shucks" diction with believable lies, Davis was able to create the feeling in the jurors' minds that his prosecution was an off-shoot of their persecutions. That he was suffering as their proxy because he deigned to aid them outside of the rules accepted by white society.

He was lying through his teeth, but that lie sounded good to a certain group of folks.

And, understandably, the white reporter at the paper just didn't get it. In that reporter’s world when logic and facts are trotted out they should always trump emotion. When someone is clearly guilty now it overrides any perceived or real past persecutions. To the reporter, the case at hand was the case at hand, and the truth was the truth.

That's also a lie, but it's a comforting one for many people.

The truth is that in the world of Clay Davis and the jurors, Davis' guilt was an unfortunate and unimportant barrier in an attempt to right past wrongs.

The truth is that dealing with present injustice and corruption may make life simpler for the state's attorney and the most reporters but it doesn't really involve justice or truth. Nor does it solve the core problems created in the past that so prominently affect the present.

Justice, corruption, guilt and innocence are all concepts whose meaningd are usually determined by the world an individual occupies.

And we all live in different worlds.

6 comments:

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

you know i have never seen the wire?

Big Man said...

you need to change that man. That's a good show.

T.A.N Man said...

I don't know if I totally agree with your analysis of the grand jury's refusal to indict Clay Davis.

I think that Davis definitely appealed to the sensibilities of the everyday working balck person in West Baltimore, but I don't think that it was based so much in "different worlds." The state's attorney, through the writers' ingenuity, thought his case for indictment was stronger than it was. He based all of his confidence in the fact that Davis was guilty. But, as any fan of any one of our "Who Done It" TV dramas knows, it doesn't always come down to that. The State's attorny used a twice convicted felon, who was caught receiving 20k cash from a known drug suspect, testfying under a conditional grant of immunity, to corroborate his bank receipt chart. All that the experienced TV super lawyer had to do was come up with a plausible explanation, as to why without that one sketchy character's testimony there really is not much hard evidence against his client.

I think that this happens all the time, from OJ, to Michael Jackson, to Diddy.

To me, the thing that got Clay Davis over was not so much the different worlds of our races, but the familiar/similar faces in the jury box. Had Davis been white and the crime charged one that a chosen jury of "his" peers found themselves amenable to, I believe the outcome would have been the same. Though many working class, or once working class, black people share certain sentiments about our history and how to best correct or compensate our people, I don't think this was the clearest example of the differences in our worlds. Rather, I see it as a fictional example of the legal system working for others, as it has always worked for the majority; and a state's attorney who let his guard down in an attempt to ride what he thought was sure-fire road to the Baltimore City Hall.

Big Man said...

Good comment you assimilated negro.

Your point has some serious merit.

But, you totally ignored the connection I drew to the Clay Davis acquittal, and the reaction from the reporter.

My theory was that it was his reaction to the Davis situation that verified the existence of the two worlds, not just what happened to Clay. The fact that the people in the newsroom immediately interjected a racial element into the jury's decision, and that the white reporter expressed dismay and disbelief at the outcome in racial terms was proof in my mind of the different world theme.

That theme was clear throughout the episode, hell one of the best examples was the bedtime story Kima told her son.

I think the different world theory was clear in the show and I think the Davis acquittal and reaction were part of it.

The question in my mind isn't that Bond miscalculated, but why he miscalculated and why the reporter and Ronnie were so surprised by what happened.

Different worlds man.

T.A.N. Man said...

My bad homey

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