Television writer-producer David Simon, a Baltimore denizen whose acclaimed HBO series The Wire and Treme pushed liberal approaches to urban policy, sat down along with former Newark mayor-now New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker for an interview about the racial state of U.S. cities.
The interview, conducted by New York Times arts reporter Michael Kimmelman for Page 1 of the Times' Sunday Arts section, helped launched Show Me a Hero, Simon's six-episode HBO mini-series about the Yonkers, NY, desegregation and public housing controversy of the mid-1980s. It also provided Simon yet another platform to rail against the "astonishing moment of political amnesia" that marks what he sees as today's "entrenched libertarian notion," as well as suggesting that the libertarian irhetoric about "freedom" and "liberty" is just code for racism. (h/t Dan Gainor)
A new HBO mini-series, which kicks off on Sunday, looks back on a notorious episode of racial discord that unfolded just north of New York City: Some three decades ago, Federal Judge Leonard B. Sand ordered the city of Yonkers to desegregate. Back then, Yonkers (population 188,000) was 85 percent white, with nearly all its black and Hispanic residents clustered in housing projects to the west. The court mandated 200 units of low-rise subsidized housing to blend into white neighborhoods to the east. Local officials, caving in to white constituents, nearly bankrupted the city by resisting the judge’s ruling. A 28-year-old former policeman, Nick Wasicsko, became mayor on a pledge to oppose integration.
Then Mr. Wasicsko took office. Mounting federal penalties cut local services and threatened more and more layoffs. The young mayor changed course and saw to it that the city obeyed the law. He was soon booted out, but, grudgingly, Yonkers began to integrate. Show Me a Hero, a six-episode series about the controversy, created by David Simon (“The Wire,” “Treme”) and based on a 1999 book by Lisa Belkin, a former reporter for The New York Times, stars Oscar Isaac as the ill-fated Wasicsko. Like so much of Mr. Simon’s work, the show puts a human face on all sides of the conflict.
Simon doesn't have much respect for "libertarian notions" like limited government and seems astonished that not everyone is a supporter of FDR's New Deal:
In the case of the Yonkers project, what we hope drives the piece forward is having a very good actor maneuvering through a character arc that is something of a Shakespearean tragedy. And Oscar Isaac portraying Nick Wasicsko’s rise and fall is very much that. If we can get you to care about Nick, we might just have a chance to tell a story about hyper-segregation, public housing and politics.
Nowadays, there’s an increasingly entrenched libertarian notion in our political culture: Well, why is the government even providing housing to anybody? What is this public housing you speak of, and why are we dealing with it? It’s sort of an astonishing moment of political amnesia, because the concept of public housing has its origins in the New Deal. These structures were built for white people in the Depression to allow families to regroup and retrench in hard times and to move on from there, and then it had a second generation in terms of the returning veterans when there was a housing shortage after World War II.
These projects were white, and nobody had the slightest doubt that this was effective government policy at the time. But of course you can’t take it forward two generations to a time where deindustrialization has happened. The same economic levers for getting out of the projects are no longer there, and now the clientele for public housing is people of color. It creates a completely different dynamic.
When Kimmelman asked Simon, "How much do you think a mini-series can change the conversation about race and housing?" Simon pompously replied:
I’d be happy to just keep the argument going. You’d be amazed how few people are comfortable talking directly about race and class in this country. I mean, beyond the cheapest slogans.
With Black Lives Matter shouting down speakers left and right, is it any wonder?
Simon took a paranoid view of black-white race relations:
America’s becoming less white. There is a subtext of: “We’re in a time where I have a president of color. We’re in a time where I’m not merely asked to share water fountains or approximate space, but I’m being asked to share power.” I think for some people, it’s a terrifying moment. But the fact is, more and more Americans are figuring out race, and their kids are figuring it out, with a degree of sophistication that is progress.
Kimmelman sometimes didn't even bother with a softball questions, but simply egged on Simon and Booker with socialist sloganeering: "We don’t build enough affordable housing, but we build a new prison every 10 days."
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Simon made the standard liberal argument that white Americans are still motivated by racism but have learned to couch their prejudice in phrases promoting freedom rather than racial epithets:
I think as a country most of us now know you can't sling around the racial epithets. That's not -- those things won't play. So we have a vernacular that allows us to play the same games, but now it's all about personal freedom and liberty and my property values and not-in-my-backyardism, you know. But what it really comes down to is fear.