Innovative Seminar Uses HBO's The Wire as a Lens to Explore the Intersection of Race and the Law


No stranger to moderating spirited debates on race, poverty, and other issues relating to inner city life, Professor D. Marvin Jones recently sought a new, more focused forum for the discussion. This semester, Professor Jones introduced a brand new seminar at Miami Law structured entirely around the hit HBO show The Wire.

Premiering in 2002, The Wire chronicled the harsh realities of life in inner city Baltimore, Maryland. Each of the show's five seasons focused on a specific facet of life in the city, including the drug trade, the seaport system, corruption in city government, the education system, and the city's print media. Seamlessly weaving the city's institutions into each season's plotline, the show's producers were able to create arguably one of the most genuine narratives depicting the struggles of inner city life in America.

To Professor Jones – a Baltimore native himself, who currently teaches both Criminal and Constitutional Law at Miami Law - no show has been as adept, if unapologetic, as The Wire at chronicling the true conditions of inner city life.

"They [the producers of The Wire] created a picture, a narrative about urban life that was the most vivid that I had ever seen in film," says Professor Jones. "My goal since I have been at the law school has been to find a way to talk about the plight of urban minorities ... that has been at the heart of my project."

Utilizing a set of inter-disciplinary materials, Professor Jones has sought to expose students to "some of the best sociology about urban life." The seminar's reading list includes the likes of William Julius Wilson, Elijah Anderson, and other preeminent sociologists. "Armed with this historical and social context, we can then begin to discuss some of the legal structures in place."

Professor Jones hopes the seminar will guide the students' focus from acute instances of injustice toward how the law confronts issues of injustice on a structural level. "We use The Wire as a context for this larger discussion," says Professor Jones, a discussion he believes will give students a set of tools to begin to understand and analyze these issues with as much precision as possible.

For their part, students enrolled in The Wire seminar seem to be embracing both the forum and the discussion it has engendered. Ashley Matthews, a 2L, enrolled in the seminar because she was a fan of the HBO series.

"The plight of the urban ghetto has been dramatized so many times before," says Matthews. "I thought the producers and directors did a great job of keeping things realistic while still providing entertainment."

Asked what she most hoped to take away from the seminar, Matthews said it was being able to engage in an open dialogue with students of diverse opinions. "The seminar has definitely lived up to my expectations."

Not all fans of The Wire were as fortunate as Matthews in enrolling in Professor Jones' seminar. Second-year student, Austin Price, was initially excited to hear that the school was offering a seminar on one of his favorite television shows. When it came time to register, however, Price – like many other eager law students – was unable to enroll, and was placed on the course's lengthy waitlist. "The waitlist for the course was longer than any other that semester," recalls Price. In the end, Price did not make the cut for the seminar, but he remains hopeful that it will be offered again next year.

Ultimately, Professor Jones hopes that the seminar can begin a process by which students – whom he views as future social engineers – can start to absorb this context of inner-city life and begin to think about how they would address the "inter-sectional" problems that are tackled in the course.

"Lawyers need to understand something about these kinds of issues," says Professor Jones. "What about, I thought, to teach a course that would address these issues and use a TV show as a jumping off point, as a point of departure."

If the seminar's popularity is any indication, Professor Jones' efforts at creating a "jumping off point" have been a success.