How The Wire Can Improve Black Health

How The Wire Can Improve Black Health

Public health officials are using the iconic television show to lessen racial health disparities.

Published June 28, 2013

(Sandi McCree in character as De'Londa Brice in The Wire. Photo: HBO)

Dubbed one of the best television shows in history, HBO’s The Wire has highlighted some of the most serious issues not only in Baltimore, but in all urban Black American communities. Whether it’s the War on Drugs to political corruption to the failing school system, the show validated what many of us already knew but also opened the eyes of viewers who have had no clue.

Now, years after the show has gone off the air, it’s being used to improve out health. In a new study from John Hopkins School of Public Health, which is in Baltimore, researchers have used the show the pinpoint some of our major health problems in order to better prepare public health officials to serve the most vulnerable communities. By dissecting the show, using a series of seminars to educate folks about new approaches, researchers hope that this new conversation can get us a few steps closer to better health. sat down with Amelia Buttress, one of the study’s authors to get the 411 on the study and why we can no longer blame the individual for poor health. Why The Wire?

Amelia Buttress: The most important thing that The Wire did was create a set of stories that we can learn and build from. And this is important because too many of those opportunities are taking place in expensive universities or being published in journals that aren't free and open to the public. It's also frustrating when academics dismiss the show or other popular media. But more people have watched The Wire than read books on urban health or sociology.

One would think it might be strange to use a show to talk about health?

Well the show can help reinforce the idea that health outcomes are not just about biology, but how your DNA interacts with your life experiences and the environment. So with just that in mind, you can talk about how changing drug and gun policies and law enforcement strategies have often fueled rather than decreased violence.  

There is also the criminalization of drug use and the factors that influence one's ability to quit using. Or the lack of a living wage and how that influences the choices people make about how to keep afloat. Also, the education gap, which is the strongest predictors for health.

And really there are a million topics that fit either directly or tangentially into the show. What is most important is that stories like The Wire remind us is that we need to be able to move beyond our small piece of the problem and think about how the little bits we work on interact with lots of other issues. We need fiction, literature, stories and the humanities, the arts because they can often get at truths that are hard to convey through research and data.

How does using The Wire help provide professionals with a better sense when dealing with communities of color?

For a number of years, many efforts in public health have focused on changing individual behavior. How do we get someone to stop smoking, eat better, and exercise more? Many of these interventions assume that the individual is the place where change needs to occur: if only people knew better, they'd do better.  

I think even people who believe this on one level can think of examples from their own life where this simply isn't true. I think the most important opportunity that can come from The Wire is to get people thinking differently about why people do what they do.  

And it’s important to look at the health of people in our cities and ask why we have had the successes and failures we've had. We spend a lot of money on health care, but we aren’t leading the world in the best health. Hopefully, with The Wire, we can shine a spotlight on the ways that so many policy and high level forces (economic, social, education, employment, law enforcement) are driving health inequities and limiting the choices of many of our citizens to achieve positive health.

What was the reception to the seminars that your colleagues put on in conjunction with the study?

We had a great turnout to the series! There are SO many lectures going on simultaneously and often there are no more than a handful in any given event. We were lucky to draw big crowds and it spoke to the show's allure.  

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Written by Kellee Terrell


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