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Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Duty of Law Professors to "Change Sh*t" -- Part Three

The Wire comments on a number of social actors, including politicians and journalists, and the central question I am exploring in these posts is what the series has to say about our profession. One scene in the series suggests that academics merely ‘study each other’s studies’ without regard to whether their research has a meaningful impact on the underserved or marginalized. A related though secondary question is whether those of us law professors who are discussing The Wire in the academic arena are validating the scene’s point.

My first post set the stage for this discussion. The second -- drawing upon the views of law professors who have dedicated time to The Wire -- addressed whether ‘studying’ itself should be criticized by the series, whether The Wire is a legitimate source of scholarly inquiry, and who should be the proper audience for academic research.

This final installment -- relying again on the views of law professors and others, including a former mayor of Baltimore and a major castmember from the series -- explores whether law professors should move beyond their core academic functions to enhance social welfare.

In the scene at issue, Dr. Parenti, a sociology professor, is excited to release his research to other academics, though “Bunny” Colvin appears to express his frustration that academics ‘studying each other’s studies’ will not yield tangible improvements on the ground.

To better understand the meaning of the exchange, it may be useful to take a step back and understand Colvin and the series’ overall theme.  First, Colvin is someone who, as a former police commander in West Baltimore, went above and beyond because of his growing dissatisfaction with the negligible impact the police department’s traditional approaches to crime and drugs were having on the streets and in the community. In particular, Colvin surreptitiously initiated a bold tactical experiment in which drug dealers in his district were pushed into designated areas where drug offenses would not be enforced by his officers. While these locations became havens for drugs and related problems, the vast remainder of Colvin’s district was quiet and peaceful. Once the powers that be got wind of this initiative, however, Colvin was blasted for “legalizing drugs” and promptly urged to leave the force.

As to The Wire, the series is a meditation on circumstances that call out for change, circumstances that compelled Colvin to transcend his basic roles in order to try to make a difference. “The Wire at once points to the almost insurmountable hurdles to changing things, while insisting that things must change,” observes Professor Capers. The exchange between Colvin and Dr. Parenti, placed in the context of Colvin’s own narrative and against the backdrop of one of the series’ message that “things must change,” suggests that Colvin would implore the academic community, law professors included, to do more -- as he did. To be satisfied only with our traditional duties, Colvin may say, would be to allow dire situation on the corners and in other distressed social spaces to fester unabated. In short, Colvin did not accept the status quo and thus would hope academics would not either.

To be sure, law professors may not be willing do more in society, even if they can or should. Professor Richard McAdams recognizes that what made “Colvin great is that he held himself to a higher standard. He didn’t just try to be a good police officer; he was a community organizer, which cost him his career.” Professor McAdams adds that, “I revere him for being that way and respect his wish that the rest of us could live up to his standard.” But he doubts whether law professors may be “as self-sacrificing as Colvin.”

Colvin may appreciate that some law professors may be risk averse, but may suggest that staying within the lines may do little for those in need. The Wire’s David Simon noted in an April interview that those in the urban underclass have been left to languish by institutions because there is no need or incentive for them to be included in the American promise of physical security and economic possibility. “There’s no profit to be had in doing anything other than marginalizing them and discarding them,” Simon decries. Law professors, driven by notions of social justice, may be able to reach those who have slipped through the cracks, even if the same people are regarded by others as lacking intrinsic worth or economic value.

This is more than a theoretical possibility -- some law professors operating within the unique academic environment are surpassing traditional bounds and meeting Colvin’s higher standard. As Professor andré cummings notes, there are law professors who are “anxiously engaged in community building and solutions oriented activism,” and are “writi[ng] about and seriously engage[d] on the street, [including in] many of the issues that are raised and interrogated in The Wire.” Professor Crayton concurs that “there are plenty of academics whose work directly applies to the ‘real world’ and attempts to actually change it for the better,” though he concedes that “[i]t’s not always the kind of work prized by their colleagues as the most significant[.]” A former dean of the University of Maryland School of Law similarly told me that clinical programs represent “one way to get outside the walls of academia and connect not only with the legal profession but focus on serving a distinct social good.” Former Baltimore mayor and current Howard law school dean Kurt Schmoke told me that academics were of undeniable assistance to his administration as he attempted to tackle drugs in the city. Recent well-publicized comments regarding the nominal external relevance of law professors’ work may be difficult to square with the efforts of these academics who have made a difference in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Jim True-Frost – who played Roland Pryzbylewski in The Wire, a former city police officer who finds his calling teaching math in a Baltimore public middle school around the time Colvin and Dr. Parenti conducted their pilot project in the same school – suggests that whether a law professor “gets her hands dirty and address the problems” affecting places like Baltimore will be revealed “case by case,” and thus cannot be based on wholesale generalizations about the profession. According to a federal judge who has a strong relationship with Baltimore, what drives a law professor to be the exception, and not the rule, is not a professional norm or social expectation. Rather, the judge, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that the “impulse” to do more is personal and “springs from a moral, religious, or ethical context” stemming from the professional’s upbringing.

Accordingly, the question is not whether law professors can or should reach beyond the campus walls, as clearly there are some who do, but whether more of us will help improve the situations in America’s most challenging contexts and desperate areas and thereby help alter the perception, seemingly held by Colvin and others, that academics are speaking to each other without affecting positive social change. Moreover, as for the law professors, myself included, who use The Wire for academic purposes, Professor cummings generously states that we are not “unwittingly supporting bunny colvin’s incredulousness regarding an academic’s fascination with data and studies rather than functional solutions and ‘in the trenches’ type of outreach.” Whether Colvin’s critical assessment applies may be best determined on an individual basis. Speaking only for myself, I think it does -- my direct efforts on behalf of the underclass are not close to the threshold above which I would feel absolved from Simon’s or Colvin's judgment.

In sum, The Wire offers significant insights into various social ills as well as the institutional failures which permit those ills to solidify and drift further from the grasp of reform efforts. Academia is not spared from the series’ critique of social entities that act to further only their interests and that do not enhance the lives of those who require help.

The Wire also gives us a veteran police commander who established a “higher standard” for service in the community. There undoubtedly are law professors who are already meeting these elevated obligations, which indicate that Colvin set forth more than an aspirational ideal, but an attainable benchmark for socially conscious professional conduct. Joining these professors – and Colvin – in a pursuit of increased social welfare is worth striving for. The alternative, Colvin may say, is to be content in an insular, rarified bubble and complicit in the continuation of evils outside of it.

Perhaps the “higher standard” to which Colvin ascribed and would demand of academics will become normalized as more law professors reach the marks already passed by some of their colleagues. If the ethos does change in this fashion, the profession attains greater entitlement to the public’s sacred trust and a stronger shield from criticism from others. Moreover, and more importantly, as a society we stand a greater chance at ridding our communities of the entrenched structures and social difficulties that restrain progress and prosperity, particularly for those belonging to the urban underclass.

Posted by Dawinder "Dave" S. Sidhu on September 11, 2011 at 07:50 PM in Television | Permalink

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