'Show Me a Hero' Recap: The Genius in David Simon's Pessimism

Show Me A Hero Oscar Isaac Still - H 2015
Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Show Me A Hero Oscar Isaac Still - H 2015

MIT's Craig Wilder calls it a story of "linked tragedies." NYU's Tom Sugrue commends the show for not offering a falsely sunny ending.

David Simon's  six-hour mini-series examining Yonkers' famous housing discrimination lawsuit of the late 1980s came to a powerful conclusion on Sunday night. Public housing did come to Yonkers but that does not necessarily mean the show had a happy ending as the two scholars blogging about the series for THR--Craig Steven Wilder of MIT and Thomas J. Sugrue of NYU--remind us.

As Professor Wilder recounts, his life mirrors the long history of the case, from growing up in New York joking about it as a kid to following its final resolution in 2007 as a tenured professor. He says the end does not come with a feel good moment and that story is really one of "linked tragedies." 

Professor Sugrue writes that the show's greatness is precisely tied up in this pessimism. He argues that "David Simon's genius is giving lie to American optimism."  

"No real justice, no feel good moment"
Craig Steven Wilder (Twitter: @craigswilder)

In a 1979 statement on school integration, Father Joseph Fitzpatrick emphasized the Catholic Church’s moral responsibilities toward Latinos and African Americans. A Jesuit priest and a sociology professor at Fordham University in the Bronx, Fitzpatrick had spent much of his academic life studying Puerto Rican communities in New York City and fighting for integration. “The fact that the Hispanics are, for the most part, Catholic adds a special quality to our obligation in their regard,” he added.

Fewer than ten years later and fewer than ten miles away, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York held a meeting at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Dunwoodie neighborhood of Yonkers. Alluded to in the first episodes, the cardinal explained the archdiocese’s offer to sell land from the campus for one of the public housing sites and addressed the concerns of white residents. Asked after the meeting if some of his clergy thought he was being overly optimistic, Cardinal O’Connor answered, “not only optimistic but suicidal.” The New York Archdiocese backed away from that commitment, pointed to a number of concerns with the integration plan, and spent months asserting the cardinal’s commitment to fair housing while positioning itself as a victim of politics. Racial injustice decides not only where Americans live and learn, but also where they eat, shop, and pray. The Catholic Church was economically and socially involved in the realities of racial segregation long before the Yonkers case. White Catholics had been moving into the suburbs for decades, using the suburban boundaries as racial dividing lines. The archdiocese had real estate and other interests in segregated districts.

“Integration is not physical juxtaposition,” Father Fitzpatrick had warned, “integration is participation in a common life.” The moral and intellectual clarity of that statement failed to resonate in a region in which discriminatory housing policies, employment practices, and educational access patterned life. As Latino and African American people fought for better lives, they were not just fighting against City Hall.

Show Me A Hero brought me back to those years. I was a student at Fordham when Judge Sand found that the segregation of the Yonkers schools was the effect of decades of intentional, systemic housing discrimination. The court case had begun as I was entering high school. As a black Catholic, I joked about Yonkers with other students of color, and, because many of the primary actors and residents in the Yonkers crisis were Catholic, that humor was painfully real. By the time that the most violent protests were erupting in Yonkers, I was working as a community organizer in the South Bronx. And when the cases were finally resolved in 2007, I was a tenured, full professor.

There is no real justice—no “feel good” moment—in that long delayed conclusion. It is a tale of linked tragedies. The terrible death of Nicholas Wasicsko reminds us how racial conflict made and unmade political careers then—think of its role in the succession of New York City mayors from Ed Koch to David Dinkins to Rudolph Giuliani—as now. One of the main forces that helped end this case was simply the changing demographics of Yonkers. White people kept moving out and people of color migrated in. The population of the city did not increase in the twenty-seven years between the beginning of the case and its conclusion, but it did change. In 1980 four of five Yonkers residents were white, by 2007 nearly one of every two residents was nonwhite.

New patterns of segregation and inequality do not equal progress. In 2009 Westchester County lost yet another housing discrimination case in the federal courts.

"David Simon's genius is giving the lie to American optimism"
Thomas J. Sugrue (Twitter: @tomsugrue)

The concept of American exceptionalism has taken quite a beating in recent years. It’s pretty hard to find a self-respecting political scientist or historian who can’t knock holes in the concept, especially now that it has become a political cliché

But there are at least two ways in which America remains exceptional by global standards. One is in our extraordinarily high rates of gun ownership. Show Me a Hero is punctuated by gun violence in both its distinctively epidemic American forms, on the tough streets outside of Yonkers’ housing projects, whose residents where drug dealers protect their turf, and in the concealed handgun that figures in the tragic closing moments of the mini-series. 

The other face of American exceptionalism remains Americans’ sunny optimism. Writing about race relations in the United States in his classic book, An American Dilemma (1944), Gunnar Myrdal singled out “optimism” as a fundamental characteristic of the American national character. He focused on what he called the “American creed,” the nation’s supposedly fundamental ideals of liberty and equality for all, enshrined in America’s founding documents. For Myrdal, the march toward civil rights was inevitable—as Americans confronted the gap between our ideals and the grim reality of racial inequality.

That optimism has played out with special force when it comes to civil rights. We can change, we can shake off the burdens of the past, we shall overcome. Or as we heard in 2008, after Barack Obama’s election, “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream” became a reality.

David Simon’s genius—both in Show Me a Hero and The Wire—is giving the lie to American optimism. He punctuates his series with hopeful moments, but there is no redemption. Mary Dorman (portrayed by Catherine Keener in a powerful performance) starts off as a foe of scattered site housing in Yonkers, but has a gradual change of heart. She ends up supporting the first black and Latino families to break the town’s racial barrier. But she’s an outlier. 

The Yonkers story is bittersweet. A few hundred families have better housing, but most are left behind in the city’s grim housing projects or left to fend for themselves in one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas. And decades after the story ends, most of Yonkers’ whites are indifferent at best, hostile at worst to their town’s non-white residents. 

In Yonkers—and in America--the arc of history has bent a centimeter or so toward justice. 

There are a lot of Americans, white Americans especially, who need a good dose of David Simon’s pessimism. Since the 1960s, a majority of white Americans have told pollsters and survey researchers that they believe that America has overcome its racist past. Any remaining racial inequality, they argue, is the result of individual pathologies, whether the bugaboo of “black-on-black crime” or the persistent myth of “welfare dependency” (even though welfare receipt has plummeted since the bipartisan effort to “end welfare as we know it back in 1996). 

David Simon’s pessimism is firmly grounded in the reality of race. It goes without saying that, in some respects, race relations in the United States have improved over the last half century. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is under siege, but more African Americans have the right to vote than ever, and they turned out in record numbers to elect our first black president. People of color still face the slings and arrows of racism, but we’ve come a long way from Jim Crow movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, and pools. 

But lest our optimism get the better of us, consider these grim statistics. Black unemployment has remained stubbornly high—since the 1950s, it has hovered around twice that of whites. The median white household in the United States holds $141,900 in assets. The average black household has only $11,000. That’s a thirteen-fold racial gap. American public schools have grown more—not less—segregated since the 1970s. Mass incarceration has devastated places like the Yonkers projects. Sixty percent of inmates in America’s massive prison system are black or Hispanic. And for all of our talk about equal opportunity in public education, our schools have grown more racially segregated since the 1970s, with devastating long term economic consequences. Our society is still separate and unequal. 

The take-away from Show Me a Hero is that it’s time to throw out our optimistic exceptionalism, especially when it comes to race. From Yonkers to Baltimore, from Compton to Ferguson, we still have a lot of overcoming to do.