What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire? Part Seven

Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia sociologist and author of “Gang Leader for a Day,” is back once again for a seventh report after watching “The Wire” with a group of gangland acquaintances. His past reports can be found here.

The Thugs were bored. Episode 7 failed to move them.

“Too slow,” griped Shine.

“They’re making us wait,” said Orlando. “See, that’s when this stuff gets unreal. When they start making you feel like you could actually get somewhere in the ghetto.”

“What do you mean, ‘get somewhere?'” I asked.

“In the ‘hood, everything changes. Nothing happens the right way,” he replied.

“Give me an example,” I said.

“Well, like what’s happening with Marlo and Omar,” he replied right away. “In the ghetto, you never have this kind of thing last so long. People kill each other right away, or not at all.”

“Ever heard the term, ‘3-day work week?'” Tony-T interrupted. I shook my head. “Well, it means that, in the hood, nothing lasts. I mean nothing! People are so poor that they can’t even afford a 7-day work week.”

“So, one of the two — Omar or Orlando — would have killed the other?” I asked.

“Yup,” said Shine. “And my bet is that Omar is getting a little stupid. Looks like he’s hurting. But my bet is that both will be done with by the time this is over.”

Then he asked if we could go over some of the comments that Freakonomics readers had made a few weeks ago, after episode 4, when the Thugs asked readers to assess what would happen between Omar and Marlo. I printed out the 100+ responses, and here’s a quick-and-dirty evaluation by the Thugs:

1. No Future
“These people are crazy!” Orlando began, referring to the commenters. “Bloggers, they think they can predict what’s happening in the ghetto. Rule number 1: there is no future.” When I asked Orlando what he meant, he said that most of the responses thought too far in advance. “The one thing I don’t like about this show is you never make plans when you’re hustling. Not for more than a few days, anyway.”

2. Insurance for Whom?
The Thugs liked the comment from “d” about insurance. Apparently, what separates the Greeks (and everyone else outside the ghetto) from people on the streets is that the former can obtain insurance policies.

“Marlo tried to get his own supply line, you know, just in case. But that kind of thing never happens if you’re on the streets,” Shine said. “Of course, you always want a second option. You always want another source for product, somebody else who can get you a gun, but you can’t get so easily.”

“That’s right,” said Kool J. “For those Greeks, they can move around because they’re not from anywhere. But around here, everyone is spoken for by somebody. If people see that you’re trying to get security by lining up with more than one group at a time, they see you as vulnerable.”

“Why vulnerable?” I asked.

“You always align yourself with somebody, rise and fall with them. If people see you trying to making friends all over, then they think you have something to hide. That’s when they come in and take over.”

“See, that’s what makes the game the game,” Shine jumped in. “You live and die with those around you. You just have to be real careful when you’re juggling a lot of balls at once. People want to know where you stand. They could get nervous if they see you trying to get that kind of insurance policy.”

3. “The Look”
“I think Wiregirl is wrong about ‘the Look,'” Kool J blurted. “That only works when you [are] talking about killers. Where I hang out, everyone knows that there are only a few people who really can kill somebody. The rest of these fools don’t even put bullets in their guns. But any fool can stand on the corner and make a sale. That don’t take no brains. Just a little desperation.”

4. Will the Real Black Man Stand Up?
“Yo, Blue Moe!” Tony-T shouted, referring to comment 84. “Yeah, we believe you when you say you’re a Negro. Because no self-respecting black man would feel good about reading the New York Times. I got something for you: its called the Amsterdam News. Take a look at it, my brother. Its for the real Negroes.”

5. Need a Job, Alex?
“My brother, I like the way you think,” cried Orlando, referring to comment 96. “We’re rooting for Michael, too. And, by the way, do you need a job? If so, call me!”

6. Watching with the Police
“We asked Sudhir to watch it with the police, too, but he’s too scared,” said Shine, referring to comment 109. “We also told him to get a real job, but he wouldn’t do that, either.”

I didn’t disagree.

Overall, the Thugs were impressed. They had one question for the readers:

If the gangs were white, what would be different about the show?


joe c.

Well, according to the show itself, a gang composed of white or black members would operate the same. I mean isn't that the overriding theme of the show; that no matter what, all institutions fall to the same problems of bureaucracy? So in that regard, a black or white gang would most likely pursue the same interests and advocate the same policies for the rank and file. In terms of the make up of the gang, I think you would see more family dynamics at play; as in the with the white gangs, each top guy would appear to have a son in waiting. This is absent from black urban gangs. Outside of the Barksdale crew, which is horizontal anyways, there is a lack of family element in the ranks of the gangs themselves. I think a show about white gangs would incorporate a much greater family presence/power struggle.

Gopal

I thought Season 2 touched on the "white" side of organized street crime in the City. Certainly, they portrayed the Sobotka saga as being more selfless than the Barksdale story. Frank was only smuggling in order to get the cash neccessary to keep the union afloat.

Mostly, I just think the lingo would be different if they had a white Barksdale or a white Marlo. It might not be that much different in the case of a white Stringer Bell though.

Wm

"So, one of the two - Omar or Orlando - would have killed the other?" I asked.

You mean Omar or Marlo.

And Sean, if the gangs were white it would be called The Sopranos and would be total garbage.

The Sopranos is to the Wire, what the typewriter is to the supercomputer.

AaronS

During the Rodney King riots, I noticed something that I believe demonstrated a significant difference between black communities and white communities.

First, the fact that there was a riot at all is virtually a black-thing, and not something that white's do. Of course, helplessness/hopelessness might play a role in this, as it seems to do with the Palestinians.

But this is what got me....

The black are angry at the WHITE police. So what do the blacks do? THEY BURN DOWN THEIR OWN NEIGHBORHOODS!

Now admittedly, I'm speaking from the perspective of being a white boy (who happens to love his black brothren).

It occurred to me that had whites been so provoked (assuming you could provoke them to that length), they would not have taken it out on themselves, but on whomever they thought deserved it.

When you consider the disproportionate characteristics of black-on-black violence, you almost get the impression that there is some invisible fence around the 'hood that keeps all the "denizens" inside, forcing them to turn all their hatred within, instead of without.

To be honest, I am somewhat thankful for that, because if our black brothers ever decided to stop burning the ghetto, so to speak, they might be burning the suburbs.

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johnny

GH - you're right. That's part of the genious of this show. The writers are smart enough to draw the parallels and make the connections with subtlety, so it's endlessly fascinating and never preachy.

CW

If the gangs were white, dealers sent to prison would receive shorter prison terms.

deniles

They already have shows about white gangs: check out Cops or C-Span.

Gopal

As many others have pointed, there have been white street gangs throughout American history. It seems, however, that they have not remained in the inner city over the long term. It appears that, like the titular family in the Sopranos, they leave that area within a few generations, even if they have business interests remaining there.

Does this same dynamic occur with African-American gangs, such as the Barksdales?

On another note, I have to respectfully disagree with Lilly's (comment #42) assessment of Frank Sobotka. Frank knew exactly what he was doing, and that it was illegal. That is why he hesitated to turn over control of the union until after the proposed grainery was constructed.

Ryan

If the gangs were white, it'd be called "K Street" and it'd be about Washington Lobbyists.

bigmamou

I don't understand how there is "no way out" of the ghetto. It's called an education, (public schools are still FREE) and as an African-American, you can easily qualify for a minority scholorship, as long as you pay your dues by studying. It's an excuse, plain and simple. I truly hope Obama wins the presidency, that way all the blacks can stop complaining about their lack of options and discrimination in the workplace.

- Posted by Guyenne

Man, are you out of touch with reality! Please, please study up on the problems of education in this country. You may discover that your "knowledge" is highly leavened by the disparity of school funding from state to state, town to town, district to district and school to school. You have verged dangerously close to labeling a whole group of people (black people) as lazy and stupid! Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be interesting to know how you would have fared being raised under the conditions prevalent in some inner cities. Learn, then speak up!

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Guyenne

I don't understand how there is "no way out" of the ghetto. It's called an education, (public schools are still FREE) and as an African-American, you can easily qualify for a minority scholorship, as long as you pay your dues by studying. It's an excuse, plain and simple. I truly hope Obama wins the presidency, that way all the blacks can stop complaining about their lack of options and discrimination in the workplace.

chris

Watch: The Godfather or Goodfellas or the Sopranos.

Guyenne

Man, are you out of touch with reality! Please, please study up on the problems of education in this country. You may discover that your "knowledge" is highly leavened by the disparity of school funding from state to state, town to town, district to district and school to school. You have verged dangerously close to labeling a whole group of people (black people) as lazy and stupid! Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be interesting to know how you would have fared being raised under the conditions prevalent in some inner cities. Learn, then speak up!

- Posted by bigmamou

Never once did I say that anyone was lazy, or stupid. I was raised in Baltimore City, and do understand that there is a huge disparity in the quality of education from city to county, from state to state, etc. I grew up poor, had a baby by 19, my son's father got shot and died (he was a drug dealer), went on welfare, studied hard in community college living on a HUGE payout (lol) from welfare of about 150 a month, got a minority scholorship to a 4 year university, and completed my studies as a single mom with a very high grade point average. I'm not a braniac, just someone who wanted to suceed very badly. I now have a great job, live in the burbs, and am very happy. I'm trying to say that I made some very bad decisions, had the odds stacked against me, and still found a way to make it work by WORKING HARD and learning that no one was gonna help me besides MYSELF. I am tired of the excuses that I constantly hear! If I can do it, anyone can!

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Andrew

Well, assuming the wire is realistic, and I think its clear that most of the time it is, then I'd look at the differences between white gangs and black gangs in real cities.

I live in Boston and theres been a very real transition over the past 15 years between a city where the drug trade was run exclusively by whites to one which is now run almost exclusively by blacks.

The biggest difference is that 20 years ago Shooter Fleming, Whitey Bulger, and the rest of the Winter Hill Gang had basically consolidated power in Boston. They were able to do that because they literally killed everybody. They even tried to kill a reporter for the Boston Herald because he was talking about their organization. They, along with Whitey's brother, who was a Mass legislature, basically had an iron grip on Irish South Boston for a few decades.

The biggest difference between them, and the black gangs today is probably the media attention and the amount of killing. Black gangs get a lot of attention for drive-bys and stabbings etc. but all told (as has been pointed out on this blog) the crime rate since the Irish gangs were washed out is way down. You just hear about it more. The Winter Hill gang killed far, far, far, more people but I think they were generally smarter about how they did it. They consolidated power, united under a single leader, kept drugs off the literal street while ramming it into every Irish project house they could find. They killed everyone else and swept it under the rug.

And in the end, as Mr. Venkatesh's research showed, gangbangers have a 25% death rate. Whitey Bulger is still on the run, and his brother is getting a fat pension from the state of Massachusetts.

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mannyv

White gangs (real ones, not the ones on TV) are different in that their aims tend to be different. Historically, ethnic white gangs have been about protecting the group while aiming towards "respectability" within society.

Basically, with white gangs there's a way out. That makes the potential long-term behavior different.

Dave

This is in response to Gary:

If what you're trying to say is that human beings (regardless of race) are self-interested and have a natural tenancy to lust after power -- then yes, Goldman Sachs is the white equivalent of an inner city gang. That's why America works so well - - we accept our true instincts and play everything out on game board at the stock market or at work rather than in the streets where people get shot.

Black Heart-White Skin

i wish eminem would step and resolve this argument for us all.i mean he was a pure Gangster right?

hahahahahahhahahhaha

Stringer Bell

Mr. Venkatesh, I'd think that after hanging out in the ghetto for your book(s) and for these pieces, you'd be more cognizant of the semantic difference between the word "n--a" and "n---r". One is used respectfully, affectionately, and as a term among blacks. The other is almost always used derogatively and almost always by whites. Yet you seem to mistake what your friends are saying for the other type.

Concerned

90% of these posts are about how horrific white people are. First of all, I don't care if you're white or black, but being white, or even working on wall street or being a member of congress, does not automatically constitute being evil, as cool as such populist statements may be. Nor are white people the only people who work for the government or on wall street, although some people apparently prefer to only view black people as down-trodden.

Why don't we focus on bringing together all accomplished black and white people in order to help underachieving black and white people, rather than countering "The Wire" with generalizations about the inherent evils of being white. It doesn't help anyone to play the racial stereotypes game.

Rob

the big difference is that white people can move ... the gang members and politicians in the story only have power in the city ... so, simple economics? right?