The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State



Patricia Fernandez-Kelly The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015


On November 14, Baltimore City reached a milestone of 300 homicides, 47 people killed per 100,000 citizens. With six weeks remaining, 2015 stands be one of Charm City’s deadliest years; in July alone, 45 people were killed, typically black men under 30 and by handgun. In the city’s chief commercial news daily The Baltimore Sun, accounts regularly splash across the front page engaging a crisis in public housing (more than 11,000 units, the highest per capita rate of any American city), and the failure of the public education system to enable students to achieve national educational benchmarks. But perhaps most spectacularly, in April, rioting, looting, and arson were touched off in the city following the death of young man in police custody.

All of this makes Patricia Fernandez-Kelley’s book The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State an incredibly timely account that identifies the conjunctive apparatus responsible for generational poverty in West Baltimore, and thus much of black America. At the beginning and at the end of the book, she offers a nutshell of her argument:

How did West Baltimore and similar inner-city areas arrive at their present situation? To answer that question, it is first necessary to consider the combined effect of capital retrogression and residential segregation during the first part of the twentieth century, which transformed working-class neighborhoods into Black ghettos characterized by persistent indigence and disconnection from the larger society (Massey and Denton 1993; Philpott 1991). Second, the spaces left empty by the departure of productive investments were then occupied by two social actors whose joint effects critically altered the lives of residents: one was predatory commerce and the other consisted of multiple government agencies and programs exercising what I call distorted engagement between the American state and the urban poor. The focus of such agencies has been on palliation, surveillance, and punishment.

In other words, with respect to destitute populations in urban areas, the American State has consistently deviated from its developmental stance, opting for practices that contribute to the perpetuation of irregular conditions among impoverished people. In the absence of genuine investments in education, business formation, and full citizenship—the three mechanisms that best explain the success of the U.S. government vis-à-vis mainstream constituencies—the urban poor face increasing isolation, separation from remunerative employment, and weakened citizenship. (338-339)

The essence of Fernandez-Kelley’s work is to show the “distorted engagement” of different “liminal institutions”– state agencies (prisons, welfare offices, child protection agencies, rehabilitative centers, subsidized housing providers, and the court system)–on the poor, as these bureaus of public service instead enact symbolic violence which infantilizes and marginalizes poor people (and also economically punishes or derails), rather than creating the terms for more robust civic involvement and human and economic development. “State omnipresence,” she writes, is “a key factor eroding the capacity of inner-city residents to mobilize resources and create alternative means of subsistence or defense. In tandem with capital retrogression and the workings of predatory drug merchants, state programs for the poor exacerbate social fracture and economic stagnation” (115).

The argument is particularly devastating because though she believes that the apartheid policies from Roosevelt to Eisenhower cemented the walls of the Black Ghetto, she argues that it is as deliberately the half-hearted encroachment of state agencies tasked with ameliorating poverty in a wealthy country directly manufacture current conditions of immiseration Baltimore’s Sandtown. It is not the complete absence of the state, the problem rests with “the proliferation of liminal government institutions—and their affiliates charged with surveillance and discipline–discourages the development of dynamic markets and business formation.” (325)

Fernandez-Kelley goes on to say that “community organizations and ameliorative programs attempting to make up for deficits created by capital retrogression interferes with business creation.”(325). In the United States in 2013, the Small Business Administration gave only 2.3% of its loans to African Americans. In Baltimore, that meant that 38 small black businesses got loans of about $15,000 to get underway. Anyone reading this is asked to make a choice about the kind of country, really, they want to leave in and work to make possible. One where most people are well-educated, and thus poised to be a kind of global elite, dispensing a lot of hi-tech resources, or one where everyone has the chance to make wealth without too many regulations standing in their way.

Fernandez-Kelley seems fully in touch with her American reader with her emphasis on entrepreneurship as the surer route beyond poverty. She points over and over again then, not even to the apartheid policies of the state which created American highways, subways, and housing policy, but what she calls “capital retrogression,” which includes the Federal government’s role, but also wants to emphasize the massive disinvestment that occurred from the business and corporate and financial sectorsfrom the 1950s-1980s. The chimera of manufacturing jobs, which seem now like a fully artificial bubble around intense production during global wars, is also not a key part of her argument.

Although the “distorted engagement” argument, essentially that the state’s palliative response is wounding not salubrious, is also a dense one in a broader context of political theory, Fernandez-Kelley makes her main evidentiary claims through ethnography. Having embedded herself with several West Baltimore families during the 1980s and 1990s, she writes the full life stories of seven black Americans living in poverty in mainly Sandtown-Winchester during that period. All of the stories are sad and riveting, from the South Carolina born-man who cherishes memories of rural hardship and segregation, to the child who at 12 swears she will never duplicate her mother’s early pregnancies, but succumbs to precisely the same pressures. Perhaps the most poignant narrative is the final tale of the small-time drug dealer Manny Man, who is murdered at the conclusion of his vignette that explores the market forces that prevented his college educated father from gaining a small business loan, to his own unflattering unsympathized demise on a stoop. In every case, the devoted low-income parent loses their capacity to direct the lives of 10 or 12 year-old children on account of intrusion by state agencies, and sometimes on account of the cunning manipulation by the pre-teen themselves.

By choosing the risky tactic of offering the direct lives as evidence, Fernandez-Kelley, I believe, manages to at least stare nakedly at the roots of the condition of urban poverty. The book is also made more accessible on account of its deliberate walking through the main intellectual arguments about the evolution of US poverty among black Americans

Drug dealing, which is typically blamed for urban violence (never gun manufacture and sale), Fernandez-Kelley refers to as “predatory commerce.” This is a big topic and hard to do justice to in brief. Arguably the turn to drug dealing by large numbers of African American men in the wake of deindustrialization was a savvy and sophisticated alternative to other forms of humiliating work. My own father, a college graduate who had directed community youth centers and worked in Baltimore city bureaus by his middle 1930s, worked part time at a flashy clothes store catering to the black poor called Cookies, at Reisterstown Road Mall during the strong financial collapse of the mid-1970s. It’s that sort of limited opportunity in Baltimore that took less educated, less prepared men and boys into the street. However, sadly, Hollywood sometimes takes over for information, difficult to come by, true. Fernandez-Kelley likes the “drive-by” shooting, unknown in Baltimore until, like the Crips and Bloods gangs, were brought to bored, isolated teens through television and films. She reports Manny Man, as a drive-by victim, unlikely since he is shot in his head on a stoop.

Fernandez-Kelley’s emphasis on business creation, such as practiced by Hispanic and Asian communities, to lift themselves out from the working class into the middle class, will undoubtedly strike some readers as a conservative overture. It may be. In fact while about African Americans exclusively, and devoting half of its pages to either eyewitness accounts of black lives or a direct appropriation of their voices (sometimes this is a bit clumsy, as Fernandez-Kelley’s Hispanic narrator seems to “put on the mask” of black dialect herself, or she transcribes black language with an eye to distortion), Fernandez-Kelley seems not to have consulted the field of African American Studies. Describing rural South Carolina for black workers in the 1940s, she claims that “It was a first rate experience to be a youngster in the rural South” and then she seems to produce compelling evidence from her respondent: “sometime we picked the cotton or plow the land…we worked till the sun goes down and you can’t see. Those were the good old days” (24). But to anyone familiar with slave narratives and WPA interviews from the 1930s, her respondent will seem to be describing the afterlife of slavery into the twentieth century in precisely mimed language. It is only that Fernandez-Kelly is too inept to perceive it. Thus, despite her laborious efforts, her first hand accounts can raise as many questions as they seem to resolve.

She regards the culture side of black life (eliminated fully in the liberal favorite film series The Wire ) by a discussion of debates of “cultural capital,” which Fernandez-Kelley prefers to call “embodied knowledge.” The point she makes here is compelling, but perhaps grating to hear: the embodied knowledges of ghetto blacks and poor whites are quite different, and even poor whites have a considerable advantage: whites in no way experience the severe isolation of hyper-segregated blacks, clustered around the central city in one contiguous tract of black poor after another. Another way of saying this is to understand the “strong ties” to family friends that abound in the ghetto and make survival possible, but the dearth of “weak ties,” external, necessarily tenuous links to the outside “disable the poor from converting social capital into economic progress and advance.” (202)

This leads me back to the African American Studies tidbit, because the other actor absent from the book are the black people who have entered the workforce and live either in the same neighborhoods as the black poor or between them and whites. This seems to me a new frontier for research. In other words, there is also a myth that is somewhat reinforced that once the neighborhoods of acute poverty are left, or a modicum of education is attained, the consequences of blackness and poverty can be overcome. In fact, it seems the reverse. Many, if not the majority of the social agencies that Fernadez-Kelley properly faults, but perhaps most conspicuously the public schools, welfare agencies, and Child Protective Services, employee overwhelmingly what is referred to as a black “middle class,” though, since it lives paycheck to paycheck as a class, has skyrocketing debt and no real wealth, must be properly understood as an “upper working class.” Upon this shaky rock is the majority of black Americans living in the US, and suffering from many similar “strong tie/weak tie” challenges of the poor, and of course they are effectively the representatives of the “liminal institutions” of the state. (At one point, Fernandez-Kelly enrolls one of her impoverished respondents at an exclusive swim and tennis club to which it would be a minor miracle for members of the black middle class to use.) Since the implicit suggestion here, “capital infusions and legislative muscle,” (344) is requiring a revolution in the mindset of Americans from top to bottom, perhaps it makes even better sense, tactically, to send investiture programs to this large black group in the middle. The economically weak black middle class is daily engaging the black poor, and their rancor and indifference towards poverty is strongly connected to their nearness to the same fate.