Youth in Danger A Theoretical Case Study of DAngelo Barksdale in HBOs The Wire

Baltimore is painted a gray, lifeless palette in HBOs gritty crime drama The Wire, a perfect backdrop for the fictional depiction of the different facets of organized crime in the urban setting. But, its creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, see it as a realistic portrayal of the sordid life in the urban jungle, the inequalities attributed to race and class, and how every person, every institution reacts to it. One such facet, grimly presented, is the prevalence of youth crime as depicted in the series first season. In reality, Baltimores juvenile violent crime rate is double the state average, wherein 88 are African-American (GBC, 1995 Advocates for Children and Youth, n.d.). These rates are dramatically depicted in the series first season with the central character of DAngelo Barksdale, a young drug dealer working for his uncle, Avon Barksdale, the powerfully ruthless kingpin of Baltimores drug underground.

Surrounded by violence and crime all his living years, DAngelo goes through a tug-of-war of moral values. His is the story of many young men who, despite criminal influences of peers and family, seek out second-chances in order to live better lives. With this in mind, we look into the life and persona of DAngelo Barksdale using Social Disorganization Theory and Moffits Development Theory (1993) to understand how this unknowing youth, and those many real people, came to embrace the life of crime that has, in the end, engulfed them.

In the first episode, we see a brash and impulsive DAngelo standing trial for a murder he committed after an argument in a building lobby turned sour. Despite a seemingly strong case against him, he was subsequently acquitted after a key witness turned her story around having been bribed (or threatened) by DAngelos uncle. Meeting his uncle after the trial, he gets himself a scolding from Avon, urging him to use his good sense next time he feel the emotional need to lash out at those he deems his enemies.

DAngelo then receives a warm embrace from his uncle, saying that they should look out after one another because they are family. With this we see how ingrained criminal life and violence is in DAngelos life. All throughout his life, he has been surrounded by drugs, crime, and violence, and not once did he ever have a moral compass to direct him to the right path. For him violence is an everyday occurrence, and when he encounters such situation, he reacts by mimicking how his uncle and cohorts would react to it if provoked, shoot. Because of this, he has become impulsive, hot-tempered, and crass.

But, we see him recognize the errors of his ways as he contemplates turning state witness when he was captured during a drug bust. His mother, though, pleads him to take the twenty-year sentence instead. And, he does so, regretfully, because at this moment he has been labeled dispensable. Stinger Bell, Avons merciless right-hand, instructs the murder of DAngelo. Found strangled in the prison library, lax investigations into his death led to it being classified as suicide.

A Theoretical Assessment of DAngelo Barksdale
Given his activities and background, we shall use the theories mentioned in a two-point analysis of the character. First, using the Theory of Social Disorganization, we will analyze the downfall of DAngelos immediate community, and second, utilizing Moffits Development Theory, we will see how this has affected DAngelos growth and leanings toward crime and violence.

In his discourse Family Management and Child Development Insights from Social Disorganization Theory (1993), eminent criminologist and expert in the Social Disorganization Theory Robert J. Sampson looks back at the works of Henry McKay and Clifford Shaw on juvenile delinquency and its immediate relation to social disorganization. He defines the theory of social disorganization as the inability of a community structure to realize the common value of its residents and maintain effective social controls (67) and is indicated by low economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility, and family disruption. He sums its causality in three parts (1) the communitys inability to supervise and control teenage peer groups or gangs, (2) the ignorance of the importance of friendship and acquaintanceship networks, and (3) the non-participation of the community in informal and voluntary organizations. When all these aspects are left untended it weakens the capacity of the community to defend its local interests (67-68).

Knowing that this hypothesis has never been fully tested, Sampson with W. Byron Groves, developed two surveys that tested the feasibility of Shaw and McKays theory as published in The American Journal of Sociology under the title Community Structure and Crime Testing Social Disorganization Theory (1989). The first survey was tested on 238 localities in Great Britain and was constructed from a 1982 national survey of 10,905 residents. It was consequently replicated on an independent sample of 11,030 residents of 300 British localities in 1984. Showing the strength of Shaw and McKays theory, results from the two surveys sustained their supposition that between-community variations in social disorganization transmit much of the effect of the community structural characteristics on rates of both victimization and criminal offending.

But, despite the seeming prominence of Social Disorganization Theory in the field of criminology, there had been a time when it was thoroughly dismissed, as discussed by Robert J. Bursik, Jr. in his article Social Disorganization and Theories of Crime and Delinquency Problems and Prospects (1988). Many people had disregarded this theory despite its contributions to the criminology because it is not...a necessary condition of criminality, let alone a sufficient one (Bursik 1988, p. 519). But, with the new writings of Byrne and Sampson (1986) and other criminology scholars regarding this most underestimated theory, we realize its importance to modern day criminology.

This importance is put into light as we use this theory to explain the psychology behind the DAngelo Barksdales actions. First, we look into the characteristic of the community that reared DAngelo and analyze it under Shaw and McKays social disorganization structure. With Avons rise in the criminal world came ill-gained wealth, but there is no doubt that he, along with DAngelo and his family, rose from a low-class community, like the one called the Pits as depicted in the series. This community consisted mostly of African-American families, a small percentage of which is educated. There is also a great probability of a large number of disrupted families. All these taken into consideration, we can say that DAngelos relations fall under the standard description of a socially disorganized community.

This community also tolerates the existence of drugs, as depicted in the first episode wherein DAngelo begins work in the Pits. He and his cohorts do business in the epicenter of the tenement, dealing drugs in clear view, with the rest of the neighborhood looking on indifferently. Members of the community even help by stopping an addict who gave fake bills to DAngelo and his crew. The gang immediately beats the addict up as, once again, the rest of the crowd watch. We can also see that there is no other organization that exists within the community except that of the Barksdales drug empire, not a civic nor government group. Without a third party to look into the dealings of the community, no check-and-balance to ensure that rights are not trampled on, we become witness to a society that alienates itself from Constitutional rule and that follows their own version of the rule of arms.

With this glimpse into DAngelos relationship with his community, we now move into how this has transformed him into the person that he is. Using Moffits Development Theory, we analyze DAngelos criminal patterns and how it fits into this theory.

Development Theory was introduced by University of Wisconsin psychology professor Terrie Moffit in 1993, following the steep climb of youth-related crimes in the United States from the 1980s to the 90s. Through a study of empirical data retrieved from a research of New Zealand boys, he deduces that delinquent and criminal behavior in juveniles, and progressively in their adult selves, are products of environments that promote it (Thornberry 1997, 2). He also says that these deviant behaviors are also thoroughly influence by peer groups even after parental variables are taken into accounts. Moffit divides the delinquent group into two categories early starters and late starters, with their own project trajectory of delinquent activity. He does this as a predictive method of knowing when a child who has expressed anti-social tendencies will most likely show further delinquent traits.

Many educators and scholars have come to see the value of Moffits work in a society plagued by underage criminal activity. A particular study done by Raymond Paternoster and Robert Brame titled Multiple Routes to Delinquency A Test of Developmental Theories of Crime, published in Criminology (1997), tackles the many different routes to delinquency as seen in modern day youth crimes. Using theories by Moffit, Patterson, Gottfredson, and Hirschi, Paternoster and Brame find a method that best explains the causes behind juvenile delinquency. He compares the older, more traditional approaches of Gottfredson and Hirschi, to the more complex studies of Moffit and Patterson. During the course of their research, they found that neither category is deemed most applicable. Their findings appeal to a theoretical middle-ground that synthesizes the two ideas, stating in their abstract that this middle-ground is an assumption of the pathways to crime and that they are more similar than different, allowing for a causal effect of past offending and life experiences on future criminality (Paternoster and Brame 1997, 49).

While the previous research tested the viability of Moffits theories in comparison to more traditional beliefs, a study done by Andrea G. Donker, Wilma H. Smeenk, Peter H. Van der Laan, and Frank C. Verhulst called Individual Stability of Anti-social Behavior from Childhood to Adulthood Testing the Stability Postulate of Moffits Developmental Theory, looks into the scientific method by which Moffit undertook to get to his conclusion regarding the stability of longitudinal antisocial behavior regarding aggressive (overt) and non-aggressive (covert) anti-social behavior. Their research revealed that overt behavior is more present during childhood to adulthood versus childhood to adolescence, thereby concluding a recently proposed adjustment to the starting of the adult phase should be considered. In essence, their research on Moffits study reveals its substantial influence in the analysis of the human development.

 Based on Moffits studies and other subsequent researches, we can clearly say that DAngelo Barksdales history of crime can be attributed to peer-influenced mimicry. We have previously established the kind of community that has reared DAngelo, one that promotes violence and criminal behavior. DAngelo sees this attribute of his neighbors and friends, and, to fit in, he mimics or copies their actions, carrying over their aggression and misdemeanor. By doing so he secures for himself a position within his immediate community, and protects himself from any violent acts that he knows would befall those who do not conform.

With a core group of friends and no problems with peer-relations, DAngelo falls under Moffits late starter category. These late starters or children with a life-course persistent trajectory starts delinquency at an older age, and then leaves it after his or her 18th year. This person is characterized by serious aggression at a short period of time, little or no problems with peer rejection, and the ability to build lasting relationships. As a late starter, DAngelo was expected to veer away from a life of crime after fully realizing that there are far more better rewards should you follow the rules. In the series, he does recognize this, but his redemption is unfortunately cut short upon his death.

The youth crime and juvenile delinquency is a most unfortunate characteristic of the past few decades, as we have seen in The Wire. Used by larger illegal organizations to do their legwork, the delinquent youth are the unfortunate pawns of more dangerous, more heartless criminals. But though we cannot completely say these youths bear no fault in their situations, we see that there are still factors beyond their reach that contribute to the makings of their attitude and actions. This research helps in assessing this dilemma following a more theoretical, highly psychological, approach.  Hence, based on this study, we have deduced that a youths propensity towards crime can be traced to two sequential factors a disorganized society, which will breed equally disorganized civilianscivilians that will become standards for that society. Through Social Disorganization Theory we have characterized DAngelos community and with Moffits Developmental Theory we have garnered the ways through which DAngelo could have picked up his attitude towards life. Through this research we have also realized the interconnecting quality of these theories, recognizing its intense complexity.

Putting this all in a more realistic context we see that this serves as a framework for creating solutions that will instantly target the epicenter of a communitys penchant for crime and violence. Knowing where it begins, we can begin to plot our way towards its end.


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