The lessons of Stringer Bell

How could they kill Stringer Bell? How could they do it?I'm still trying to adjust.

If you're a fan of HBO's The Wire, you can relate to my distress. If not, then let me say briefly that this is one of the best TV programs in a long, long time. To call it a cop drama would be an extreme disservice, although that is the basic framework. What the Baltimore-based series does is portray the uglier realities of urban America with a precision and honesty that has never been attempted before. The result is a phenomenal cast of characters that gives individual voices and humanity to people many of us might otherwise ignore or, worse, write off as being all the same. And of all the characters giving the lie to that assumption, Stringer Bell took that lie and tied it up in knots.

String, as he was known on the streets, was a drug kingpin. He was also a drug kingpin who took business courses at night school in order to run a more efficient empire. He was a drug dealer who read great literature and philosophy, who translated his earnings into massive real estate holdings and other ventures. Stringer Bell was a genius who should have run a Fortune 500 company, but instead was trapped inside the twisted mind of a cold-hearted killer (who himself was killed at the conclusion of Season 3) and a drug dealer who would have made Machiavelli proud.

I was fascinated with Stringer Bell because he was a walking, talking contradiction who represented the best and worst of the streets — a highly intelligent black man whose business acumen and leadership skills were employed in all the wrong places. Still, in a perversely misguided way, String was proof of the power of an educated and analytical mind. Most of us working folks have no love for the drug trade. But no matter how much we detest what drug dealers have done to our communities, most of us know that these kids aren't stupid, and you definitely can't say they don't have a work ethic. It takes an education — even if it's an education acquired largely outside of the classroom — and a serious work ethic to run a drug empire, even if it's the wrong kind of education for the wrong kind of work.

The reasons why kids choose to sell drugs have been detailed in volume upon volume of newspaper articles, studies, books, etc. The bottom line is that the money seems good; there are always opportunities for advancement whenever a co-worker gets shot or locked up; and you get mad respect from your peers ... until you get shot or locked up. Sure there are risks, but it's also a risk being poor and black. From the dealers' perspective, dealing is the best shot at the American Dream and they aim to take it — no matter who they have to shoot to get it.

Education, the standard kind that you get in school, is supposed to be that ticket to a better life. If America worked as it's supposed to, drugs and other fringe occupations wouldn't be so appealing to so many inner-city kids. They would see that education can get you where you want to go, that it can get you out of the ghetto. But here we are, nearly four decades after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and some would argue that the black poor are as solidly locked into their wretched existence as they were during the civil rights era.

Urban public schools, the ones abandoned by just about every white and black family with options, are also the only option for most of the black poor. Those who attend are essentially stuck with patchwork education leftovers. You don't have to look any further than Detroit — and the recent teachers strike — to see the boiling pot of anger and frustration simmering throughout the public school system nationwide. The teachers with the most challenging job of all are the most underpaid, the most overworked and the most unappreciated. Even the most dedicated professional can't prevent that poisonous mixture from spilling over into the classroom, and it's the kids who pay the consequences. These kids know that they are being shortchanged because, like I said, they are hardly stupid. They already know that too many of those who graduate are hardly prepared for college or much of anything else, so they figure why bother with graduation?

So where does that leave us? Well, a brief look at statistics compiled by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research might give us a place to start.

Among a recent report's key findings:

• The overall national public high school graduation rate for the class of 2003 was 70 percent.

• Nationally, the graduation rate for white students was 78 percent, compared with 72 percent for Asian students, 55 percent for African-American students, and 53 percent for Hispanic students.

• Female students graduate high school at a higher rate than male students. Nationally, 72 percent of female students graduated, compared with 65 percent of male students.

• The gender gap in graduation rates is particularly large for minority students. Nationally, about 5 percent fewer white male students and 3 percent fewer Asian male students graduate than their female counterparts. While 59 percent of African-American females graduated, only 48 percent of African-American males earned a diploma. Further, the graduation rate was 58 percent for Hispanic females, compared with 49 percent for Hispanic males.

• Each of the nation's 10 largest public high school districts, which enroll more than 8 percent of the nation's public school student population, failed to graduate more than 60 percent of its students.

In Season 4 of The Wire, String is dead, his partner, co-kingpin Avon Barksdale, is locked up, and a new power named Marlo is taking control of the corners. But the core drama is the battle inside the schools. I don't know how it will all play out on HBO, but out here in real life I hope and pray that sooner or later the message will resonate at deafening volume throughout the corridors of power that we ignore these kids at our own peril.

If we refuse to care about their welfare for their sakes, then perhaps self-interest might be enough. According to a Detroit News special report last year, "Forty percent of Michigan residents who got cash welfare last year were high school dropouts, costing the state roughly $156 million. And about 70 percent of convicts who entered prison last year were dropouts; housing them for just one year will cost taxpayers about $200 million."

Furthermore, dropouts "are twice as likely to be unemployed and more than twice as likely as others to be in poverty. And when they do find jobs, they make two-thirds as much as a typical Michigan worker."

There's more. "Education at a Glance," an annual study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, released a report recently that said, in part:

"The United States is losing ground internationally because other countries are making faster and bigger gains. The high school and college graduation rates of recent U.S. students are now below the international average. For example, among adults age 25 to 34, the U.S. ranks 11th among nations in the share of its population that has graduated from high school. It used to be first."

This isn't about them, OK? It's about us.

Keith A. Owens writes for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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