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Q: Is "The Wire" too "black" to get top ratings? [pauline]
A: Yes, I'm afraid that I believe this.
I do not believe the average white viewer catches a glimpse of The Wire, screams "Negros!" and grabs the remote in
a cold sweat. It is nothing as venal or racist as that.
But human empathy has its limits and some of those limits are based on race and culture. Personally, this has
always been a disappointment to me, but it is simply human nature. Witness the horror in the Middle East currently,
where Arabs cannot fully feel the pain of Israelis being rocketed randomly in their cities and towns and Israelis cannot
feel the tragedy of the Lebanese being bombed in their homes and streets. Once politics and race and religion do
their worst work, everyone only fully feels their own humanity and the other is somehow a little less human.
At that point, of course, any horror is possible.
With somewhat less extremity, I believe there are many white viewers who see so many black faces - and many of them
discomfiting black faces from the nation's underclass - staring back at them on a television screen and they say, to
themselves, this is not my show and this is not my story.
I think they're wrong, of course. The Wire is everyone's story. It's about the America we've built
and the America we've paid for, and therefore the America that all of us deserve, sadly. And I think it's also
worth noting how much "white" programming has been embraced by minority viewers, simply because black and Hispanic
consumers of mass media have for years supped on the majority culture in dramas, comedies, commercials, etc. They
have more experience translating the image and sound of white America to their own range of experience simply because
they've been required to do so. Conversely, white folks are not used to being in the minority and we're not as good
I would urge everyone to get hold of Andrew Hacker's "Two Nations," a thin but telling book that gently examines the
cultural presumptions of white folk and lays bare the sociopolitical and racial chasm in this country. A notable
fact from that book: Studies show that most whites want some black representation in their neighborhoods and
schools - we want our children to experience a certain degree of multiculturalism, we want to regard ourselves as racially
progressive, we want a handful of black friends and neighbors and playmates. White neighborhoods do not bristle
when the black population is less than seven percent or so, but if home sales to black buyers increase and the percentage
of black representation in a neighborhood reaches say, fifteen percent, white flight ensues. We are not racists,
for the most part, but we want to be progressive in small, modest increments.
I think the same sentiments govern whether some significant portion of the American viewing public watches The Wire
or prefers the Sopranos, 24, or Desperate Housewives.
Some might argue the point and cite other elements that make The Wire less likely to be a breakout hit and they, of
course, have a point. But I would ask them, before continuing their argument to any degree, to point to a single
majority-minority continuing drama that has ever been successful on American television. Single-shot miniseries
epics like "Roots" and sitcoms do not count. Few such dramas have been attempted and those that have are usually
marginalized and ghettoized, with no one expecting anything but a majority-minority viewership.
All that said, we did not conceive The Wire to make any sort of racial statement. We are merely depicting
the city of Baltimore in its specifics. The city happens to be 60-65 percent black. Our drama reflects this
and we would not cheat the demographics to achieve more viewership just as we would not cheat other elements of the
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