After telling people that I’ve taught in Baltimore City, I’m occasionally asked whether the fiction depicted in The Wire lives up to the reality of daily life in “Charm City”.
My knee-jerk reaction is to immediately say “yes”, but a comment less than five minutes into Charles Barkley’s new TNT show American Race will probably change my answer from now on.
“The first thing they ask me is like, ‘The Wire -- is Baltimore like The Wire?’” said Devin Allen, one of the protagonists in the series premiere of American Race. “Baltimore is worse than The Wire. This is a small city with 200 murders a year. It's difficult to live here.”
I taught in West Baltimore for a couple of years during
Tommy Carcetti’s Martin O’Malley’s time as mayor. O’Malley actually visited my classroom once and that brief interaction did little to challenge the then-debated notion that The Wire’s fictional mayor was modeled directly after him. But aside from the numerous images from The Wire’s Season 4 that could’ve come directly from the school I taught in -- on “Pennsy” & Gold, which astute observers of the series may recognize -- what makes reality worse than fiction is that the difficulty of life is ever-present, from the physical environment to the structural inequalities felt within the experience of daily life.
To live in Baltimore City, as highlighted a number of times in the series opener of Barkley's show examining the story of Freddie Gray, is to negotiate one’s humanity in the midst of stark inhumanity. The black community there has endured inter-generational struggle that many people I've encountered simply don't believe exists in the U.S. -- more than a decade before the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the school I worked in had permanently shut off its water fountains due to high lead levels (and since we had no AC either, you can imagine how torturous school felt for teachers and students as the summer months approached). Imagine growing up as a kid who is forced to go to an increasingly hot school without potable water in the morning and, for far too many of the kids I taught, return to a home without full meals in the evening.
Baltimore is a toxic brew of all of our nation’s ills, from the Drug War to homicide rates to inadequate housing to food deserts to a struggling school system -- the school I worked in has since been closed, part of a growing nationwide crisis in urban communities that has been well-documented.
The premise of Barkley's project is this admirable insofar as he does aim to shine a light on human conditions that most people would rather turn a blind eye to — it’s that willful ignorance in mainstream discourse that exacerbates the racialized alienation that ultimately shaped the nation during this past election season. Having never fully reconciled its original sins, the United States is left with an open wound that everyone has foolishly expected to heal itself. So in the way it’s executed, I don't doubt Barkley’s curiosity, at least in answering some of his own questions. And where neither Barkley nor his interviewees could provide historical context, the use of archival footage was used to supplement the lived experiences captured. Unfortunately, as Michael Arceneaux of The Root observed, Barkley's own inability to bring insight to the situation or ask critical questions hurts whatever value the show might have had.
“American Race is more about Barkley’s education than about informing many of us,” Arceneaux observed. “It is a lot of surface-level conversation in the tone of an after-school special.”
Barkley's treatment of the Baltimore Police Department epitomized Arceneaux’s criticism. Walking into an interview with a small group of cops, Barkley wondered what they were doing to connect with the people.
“There's been long simmering tensions between the black community and the cops,” Barkley observes. “What's going on?”
That's not as bad as asking why the Civil War happened, but it's also not exactly a novel or particularly provocative question. It's a question that any number of people who have ever lived in Baltimore could probably answer off the top of their head. In fact, it's a question that you could argue The Wire dedicated at least two whole seasons and multiple character arcs to.
Therein lies the problem with American Race: as Arceneaux suggests, Barkley illuminates nothing about race in the U.S. that anyone who's actually interested in it couldn't have gained from watching The Wire, 13th, or OJ: Made in America. The depth of racism is more substantively explored by reading Between the World and Me, The New Jim Crow or Black Social Capital (which offers a concise history of how Baltimore got to the state it’s in now) . Even in spotlighting Baltimore specifically, it's hard to feel like there's much unique insight provided about the character of the city.
On the same night of Barkley's sneak preview, CNN aired the second episode of Season Two of W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America. From the outset, Barkley and Bell simply navigate the world differently despite leading with curiosity: Barkley approaches life with the bravado necessary to make it as an undersized power forward in the NBA; Bell manages to bring a humility and levity to every situation, whether speaking with KKK leaders or gang members. Yet what distinguishes United Shades is not just a host who's actually funny but a host who has spent some time contemplating the subjects he has set out to explore.
As a comparable example from Bell’s series, he actually investigated the very idea of community-police relationships in the first season during a visit to Camden, NJ. Instead of taking a spineless “both sides” approach or actively seeking to confirm his own beliefs and defend the police (as Barkley did), Bell leveraged his effortless affability to facilitate a conversation between a relatively young cop and a community member to link their perceptions of what the tensions came from. Confronted with the same scenario of going through a police training simulation and talking with cops that Barkley presented, Bell ended the episode by posing more questions and determining he didn't have the answers; Barkley concluded his episode trying to lecture the community in Baltimore about what they should think about police.
Bell neither railroads the police with his opinions nor avoids conflict -- he finds a way to bring seemingly conflicting opinions together by starting with readily available data and crafting questions that guide an exploration beneath the surface and identify what's working for people instead of just describing situations that already show up in screenplays. As entertaining as it was to watch the Baltimore community douse Barkley's hot takes with buckets of cold water, it's hard to say anyone but him gained much from the show.
Now, full disclosure, I am a fan of Bell’s --I've seen him speak in person and his podcasts (Denzel Washington is the Best Actor of All-Time Period and Politically Reactive) are among my favorites. But what you feel from his comedy is what you feel on the show: as Maureen Ryan of Variety describes, Bell excels at, “...putting across his views, and data that supports his beliefs, but also at listening to people, whoever they are and wherever they’re coming from.” Barkley delighted in the idea of starting an argument between family members in their own living room early in the premiere of American Race.
While Eric Deggans of NPR suggests that neither show really digs beneath the surface, what really separates them is each host’s approach to how they explore their topics: Barkley came in looking to prove his belief that respectability politics and blaming black communities for the situation they're in is accurate; Bell is legitimately trying to understand systems and pose systemic solutions to the deeply entrenched forms of oppression. That analysis alone, that ability to understand systems, is ultimately where the usefulness of United Shades lies.
Barkley never really gets out of the insularity of his own pre-conceived viewpoints; Bell begins with the premise that others have considered these issues and challenges people to explore their assumptions. Barkley asks “What's going on?” and basically gets a verbal press kit from the Baltimore police. In his episode on community policing last year, Bell asked, “How effective is community policing if the people doing the policing aren't from the community?” and proceeds to explain why this dynamic exists and concretely uncovers its significance.
Barkley asks what; Bell asks how, why, and weighs the data through dialogue. It's a difference of about 2-3 levels within Bloom’s Taxonomy; it’s the difference between a show that might leave you with the same opinion you had coming in and one that might leave you with further questions to pursue independently.
To summarize Arceneaux's argument, Barkley was simply out of his depth in the premier episode of American Race and the show indeed feels like a symptom of a nation that just put a celebrity in the White House -- perhaps the same could be said for W. Kamau Bell or other comedians who seem to consistently have a better handle on matters of social significance than prominent media outlets, but at the very least this growing genre of socio-political comedy appears to grasp that facts and history matter.
In being out of his depth, it’s natural to wonder whether Barkley could leverage his status as a NBA celebrity to better illuminate matters of race similar to how Bell brings his comedic talents to bear on his show. For example, in the episode of United Shades of America that aired on Sunday, Bell actually sought out an interview in Chicago with Jolinda Wade, mother of Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade.
“In addition to being NBA star Dwyane Wade's mom, Jolinda Wade has a harrowing and inspirational story of drug abuse and gang-banging before she turned her life over to the church and then to her community,” Bell wrote in his summary of the episode on CNN.
What if, I wondered briefly, Barkley sought out NBA players and families who are using their stature in their communities to challenge racism? What if he took on the questions of colorism that Marcus Thompson II raised in chapter eight of his new book the Miraculous Rise of Stephen Curry and explored race through a lens and discourse he has a better grasp of? Or Jeremy Lin’s journey through the league or something?
Then again, why on Earth do we need Barkley to take on this project anyway?
The problem is that the United States’ ongoing struggle with race doesn’t really need more hot takes, even to discuss matters specific to the NBA. And that's sort of the problem overall with Barkley's approach to the subject matter: we don't need a professional hot take artist leading a discussion as complex as race in the U.S.
W. Kamau Bell, as a politically-minded comedian, seeks to give voice to both community concerns and what people are doing to overcome racial alienation. Charles Barkley, as an entertainer, sought to try out his admittedly naive political opinions in the real world, but refused to change in the face of disconfirming evidence. Bell has constructed a show that is a platform to advocate and inspire while Barkley is crafting a space to argue and entertain beyond his existing context of basketball.
Bell is probably just the right person to facilitate this type of dialogue for a national television audience.
Neither is going to solve the problems of race in the U.S., but the idea that our nation’s eternal race conversation is missing debate in this current climate just seems as tone deaf as walking into a community meeting in Baltimore to defend the police.