David Simon: The Great Divide in the ‘Two Americas’

By George Foulsham

Fractured. Rigged. Tragic.

David Simon uses those words often as he describes what’s become of America, or, as he puts it, our “two Americas.”

Simon, a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun who left the paper and became a successful television screenwriter and producer, was the capstone of the two-day inauguration of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin. His keynote address at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater was part of the Luskin Lecture Series.

The event also featured a screening of one episode of the Simon-penned HBO series “Show Me a Hero.” Simon is perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed series on HBO, “The Wire.” 

“‘The Wire’ showed us that the court of law, the police station, the city bureaucracy are as much a part of the game as the street,” said Ananya Roy, director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, who introduced Simon. “And the game, as the line in ‘The Wire’ goes, is rigged.” 

Simon’s themes and messages, conveyed through his writing and television shows, reflect in many ways the mission of the new institute.

“How do we do a better job of living together?” Roy asked. “This is a question that animates David Simon’s work. How do we live together in the context that David Simon has described as two separate Americas? Simon’s artistic and journalistic work reminds us that the creation of these two separate societies is by will. It’s by policy, by plan.”

Simon’s lecture was titled “The Audacity of Despair,” which also happens to be the name of his blog, a self-described collection of “prose, links and occasional venting from David Simon.”

During his Luskin Lecture, Simon covered a broad range of topics, from politics to activism to police. And, yes, he did a little venting.

the Audacity of Despair with David Simon

“Nothing quite works in this very complicated and tragic and rigged system, if you believe that one singular ideology gets you out of every problem,” Simon said. “I think that one of the great plagues of our age is that right now there are any number of people — and I think we are witnessing it in this election cycle — who think they can explain what ails us and why we are so fractured, in a single paragraph.

“If you have an ideology that works in every set of circumstances,” he added, “you’re probably about to say something stupid. Or do something stupid.”

His experience as a newspaper journalist informed his screenwriting, and his views about policing, as well as the war on drugs.

“I know a lot of good cops who will tell you that the drug war destroyed us,” Simon said. “They sold us this drug war, and we committed our resources to it, and we bought it.

“When we are talking about the drug war, law enforcement issues and mass incarceration, I ask the question of whether or not poor communities are over-policed or under-policed,” he added. “The consensus was over-policed. It’s complicated. It’s in the complications that we lose ourselves.

“I’ve heard in the activism that we don’t need the police. I’ve heard that we don’t need the prisons,” Simon said. “The answer is these communities are brutally over-policed to the point of consigning hundreds of thousands to criminal histories. And yet these communities are utterly under-policed, for the things they desperately need.”

Simon also reflected on his experiences while covering the police in his hometown, Baltimore, and how not much has changed.

“I don’t believe in community policing,” he said. “If you want social work, hire a social worker. A good police department does one thing to make a city better. It figures out the right guy to arrest, and it takes him off the corner. If you get killed in Baltimore, you will not be avenged, and your family will not be avenged. But, more than that, the guy who killed people will still be standing on the corner with a gun. And he’ll do it again.”

Simon, who also wrote the television series “Treme,” which aired for four seasons on HBO, put a lens on democracy, and how it’s changed.

“(Winston) Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government, until you consider every alternative,” Simon said. “I think my critique would be, what’s fallen by the wayside, what we’ve permitted to become a shell of democratic ideal, because we’ve been able to construct these two Americas where the rules can be applied differently. That has to be deconstructed.”

Simon closed by issuing a challenge to all attending the lecture, saying that a simple act of civil disobedience would help bring an end to the war on drugs.

“If you are asked to be on a jury, on nonviolent drug use, and they ask you to send another human being to prison because of this disaster of a drug policy, acquit. No matter what the evidence is, acquit,” Simon said. “Search your conscience. Is my country really going to get better for putting another person in prison for nonviolent drug use? Does that make America stronger or weaker?”

The Luskin Lecture Series

The UCLA Luskin Lecture Series enhances public discourse on topics relevant to the betterment of society. The series features renowned public intellectuals, bringing scholars as well as national and local leaders to address society’s most pressing problems. Lectures encourage interactive, lively discourse across traditional divides between the worlds of research, policy and practice. The series demonstrates UCLA Luskin’s commitment to encouraging innovative breakthroughs and creative solutions to formidable policy challenges.


UCLA Institute to Focus on Activists Tackling Inequality

In 2014, the Chicago Housing Authority opened its public housing waitlist for the first time since 2010, and its housing voucher waitlist for the first time since 2008. More than a quarter of Chicago households applied. Meanwhile, more than 55,000 homes sat vacant in Chicago and the surrounding county.

Urban Color-Lines Event Challenges Racial Segregation

Scholars, artists and activists gathered Feb. 4 and 5 for the launch of the new Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy. The launch event, “Urban Color-Lines,” took place on the UCLA campus as well as in the Japanese American National Museum. The two-day event was inspired by the work of W.E.B. Dubois, and the issue of the “color line.”

Storify: Inaugurating the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin

School of Public Affairs launched Institute on Inequality and Democracy

The Luskin School of Public Affairs will launch an interdisciplinary institute Thursday that aims to address social inequality issues by promoting social justice and democratic ideas.

New Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy to Launch with Series of Events Feb. 4–5

A new kind of Institute has come to UCLA. Led by Ananya Roy, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs professor and center director, the newly established Institute on Inequality and Democracy will launch on Feb. 4–5 with two days of events at UCLA and the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.

UCLA Luskin Professor Ananya Roy Has a ‘Clear Mandate’ for Social Justice

By Stan Paul

On day one of teaching her first UCLA undergraduate course, “Democracy and Inequality,” award-winning scholar, author and teacher Ananya Roy wasted no time getting right to a key point. Roy wanted to convey to students that “unprecedented forms of income inequality currently afoot in the United States have been produced through policies,” including taxation.

Roy describes her course, open to undergrads and grad students, as “taking up the case of persistent inequality in liberal democracies,” as well as covering key frameworks and methodologies for understanding and analyzing poverty and inequality. In doing so, she says that the already very popular course examines forms of action — from the role of government to social movements — that seek to intervene in such problems.

“It is important for us to recognize that various forms of inequality, be it income inequality or racial inequality, have been constructed and maintained,” said Roy, who joined UCLA in 2015 after many years on the faculty at UC Berkeley. And, her own discipline is not free of culpability, according to Roy. Urban planning, she said, is also “complicit in the production of racial inequality,” citing redlining and other forms of spatial segregation as examples.

But, Roy said, “The good news is these forms of inequality can also be challenged and tackled.” 

At UC Berkeley, Roy held the Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice. Her course on global poverty regularly drew hundreds of undergrads each year, and, in 2010, The New Yorker called the advocate of public higher education “one of Berkeley’s star teachers.” The dynamic instructor, who also uses social media to encourage her students to think about their participation in public debate, also earned the Distinguished Teaching Award, the university’s highest faculty teaching honor, and the Distinguished Faculty Mentorship Award.

Roy is also a prolific author. Her book “Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development” won the 2011 Paul Davidoff Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, given for books that promote participatory planning and positive social change. Other titles include “City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty” and, most recently, “Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South.”

Roy recently joined an international group of scholars as the co-editor of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR), published by Wiley-Blackwell.

Launch of New Center on Inequality and Democracy

In addition to teaching as a professor of Urban Planning and Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Roy will serve as the inaugural director of the new Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin. The center will be launched with two days of events, Feb. 4-5.

Roy has an ambitious — and still developing — task at UCLA, Luskin and the wider community. At the new institute, based within the Luskin School, she will oversee a multifaceted program of research, training and public scholarship concerned with both the current moment of inequality as well long histories of oppression and marginalization. With research interests ranging from social theory to comparative urban studies, Roy has dedicated much of her scholarship to understanding and analyzing persistent poverty in a prosperous but unequal world.

“The institute’s work is just getting started,” said Roy, but it will be quite different from similar centers and institutes at other universities. Key themes of the institute will be racial justice — and not only in economic terms — and thinking across the global north and south as opposed to focusing only on the U.S. or other countries. And, while the center will seek to “move the policy needle,” Roy said social movements will provide a guide as to how such change can take place.

“We recognize social change happens through the hard work of organizing and mobilizing. We also recognize social movements as producing key ideas, frameworks and approaches for diagnosing the public problems of our times.”

Another goal of the center is to create a space for debate. “I think the point we want to make is that it is necessary to have an intellectual space for debate within the left, within progressive and radical thought and action,” Roy said. “We hope the institute will be such a space. And Los Angeles is the ideal setting for such ambitions.

“It is a great privilege to be able to establish and direct this institute, to do so with a clear mandate for social justice, to do so at one of the world’s great public universities, and in a city that manifests enduring inequalities but is also home to inspiring forms of activism and mobilization.”

To learn more about the new Institute please visit the website at:


More about Ananya Roy

Born in Calcutta, India, Ananya Roy earned her bachelor’s degree at Mills College in Oakland, California, and her master’s and doctoral degrees at UC Berkeley. At UCLA Luskin, Roy holds the Meyer and Renee Luskin Chair in Inequality and Democracy and faculty appointments in Urban Planning and Social Welfare.

For a look at Professor Roy’s work in critical poverty studies, see #GlobalPOV: 



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