The Hero's Fight - Waverly Duck Review

THE HERO’S FIGHT: AFRICAN AMERICANS IN WEST BALTIMORE AND THE SHADOW OF THE STATE by Patricia Fernández-Kelly. Princeton University Press, 2015, 440 pp. ISBN: 978-0-691-16284-3.

American Journal of Sociology (March 2017)

Imagine if William Julius Wilson were to write an ethnography based on his classic study The Truly Disadvantaged set in present day West Baltimore. Imagine that, in addition to critiquing conservative and liberal interpretations of the state, he offered a blistering critique of its neoliberal policy regime, showing it to be an oppressive, punitive force embedded in the everyday lives of the poor. Further, imagine he found that the conditions of impoverished communities have worsened since the publication of The Truly Disadvantaged. Now, combine all of these imaginings into one ethnographic study that weaves together multi-generational biographies, neighborhood mapping, local statistics, policy analysis and a critical theory of neoliberalism: the result would be Patricia Fernández-Kelly’s The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State.

The book comes at a timely historical moment: In the popular media, West Baltimore has recently become one of several cities associated with police brutality, particularly in wake of the unlawful, and ultimately fatal, arrest of Freddie Grey. Following Grey’s death, protests erupted in the city, leading to six officers being charged with homicide (though all would later be acquitted or have their charges dropped). If ever there was a book that contextualizes Freddie Grey’s life—and his death—at the hands of the state, it’s The Hero’s Fight. Sadly, Freddie Grey isn’t the only one whose encounter with the punitive arm of the state has ended in tragedy: Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and numerous others have suffered untimely deaths at the hands of law enforcement. Fernández-Kelly’s book explains how such tragedies, and countless other instances of brutality, have become a day-to-day reality for many black working class Americans.  Most books about cities and poverty start with poverty. By contrast, Fernández-Kelly’s book starts with the working class and shows how they, and the city, slip into poverty. She also debunks the notion that these people have always been poor - she shows how this happened.

The Hero’s Fight illuminates the state by way of what Fernández-Kelly calls liminal institutions, such as prisons, schools, child protective services, public housing officials, etc.  The author demonstrates how the adverse treatment of impoverished urban populations is not a historical accident, but rather the systematic effect of how state institutions engage with citizens. She rightly argues that the United States’ large bureaucratic engine interferes with the lives of precarious Americans, and that governments should reconsider public institutions that contribute to the maintenance of irregular conditions in American cities. Among the book’s strengths is its portrayal of the lives of economically vulnerable working class Americans; it situates their social circumstances in the foreground, showing how these lead to entanglements in the pathology of punitive state practices. It is this examination of the devolution of the American working class that makes The Hero’s Fight so compelling. Accordingly, while providing a sharp critique of the state, Fernández-Kelly also shows us how its form and actions are intimately tied to the post-deindustrialization erosion of livable wages, affordable housing, decent schools, and life-sustaining jobs.

Fernández-Kelly conducted immersive ethnographic research focusing on how the lives of the poor have changed since the publication of Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. Her study initially began when she served as a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1980’s.  While at Johns Hopkins, between 1990-97, she cultivated relationships with members of 50 families living in West Baltimore. The book is centered on the lives of these families and their members, including D.B. Wilson, Big Floyd, Little Floyd, Clarise, Towanda, and Manny Man.  The Hero’s Fight illustrates how the government interacts with impoverished people in the shadow of Baltimore’s declining manufacturing industries. Fernández-Kelly’s West Baltimore is an area where 1/3 of women with children have household incomes that never surpass $10,000- $15,000 per year. In this context, neoliberal policies, anchored by an ideology that blames individuals for urban problems, tend to focus on changing the behavior of the poor rather than the structural conditions that cause poverty in the first place.

Baltimore is a longstanding Southern city, albeit situated on the East coast and with Northern sensibilities. Baltimore houses a major port of entry, and its economy once supported booming agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Nonetheless, Fernández-Kelly shows us how blacks were the last to be hired and join labor unions, and were also the first to be dismissed when manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Given its location between the Southern and Northern U.S., Baltimore is an ideal context in which to study these changes and their effects. For example, Fernández-Kelly researched The Bethlehem Steel Company, which employed 30,000 workers in the 1970s, fewer than 15,000 in 1986, and, by 2009, only 2,500 workers. Her study of this plant supports what Wilson documented in Chicago: that men and women who once held humble but decent positions in factories now languish without stable employment.  

West Baltimore has been the subject of shows like the Wire, as well as books and essays by the writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose book Between the World and Me explores his life in that neighborhood. Sociologists have also written about the challenges facing West Baltimore, most notably NYU professor Deirdre Royster in Race and the Invisible: How White Networks Exclude Black Men from Blue-Collar Jobs. Like Fernández-Kelly, she closely documents the challenges faced by working class African American men in Baltimore. Why, then, do we need a further study of Baltimore? Such a study is timely, I think, in light of the rapid changes occurring in the city, including the rising cost of food, energy, and housing; the ongoing privatization of welfare reform perpetuated by a neoliberal state; the charter school movement; and the mass incarceration and the surveillance of the poor.

A study over ten years in the making, The Hero’s Fight is reminiscent of Jay MacLeods Ain’t No Makin It and Jon Snodgrass’ The Jack-Roller at Seventy. The author’s longitudinal focus allows her to document changes over time, lending further depth and nuance to her topics. This longitudinal dimension is alluded to in the book’s title, a reference to Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic, A Hero with a Thousand Faces, which examines archetypical heroes across time. Although not a typical ethnography, the book hits all the right methodological and theoretical notes, combining theoretical sophistication with a mixed-methods research design. Further, Fernández-Kelly’s use of biography as an analytic tool harkens back to such classic studies as Charles Booth’s Life and Labor in London and W.E.B. Du Bois’ the Philadelphia Negro. 

Another aim of the book is to bring the state back into studies of urban poverty in America (though I am not completely convinced that it ever left). Fernández-Kelly points out that although many neoliberal policies have been put into place to “solve” poverty (e.g. welfare reform, housing reform, criminal justice reform, etc.) these programs continue to fail miserably. As a corrective, she recommends that government officials pay attention to American history, tapping into proven solutions that once gave people the tools to succeed economically, socially, and politically.

Despite its strengths, the book has some shortcomings. One is that the author is rarely present in its pages. Fernández-Kelly didn’t simply research her subjects, but also played a supportive role in their lives. For example, she sponsored four children to attend a parochial school in Baltimore’s Waverly district. However, beyond her noble deeds, we learn very little about her involvement in the communities she studies. Given the organic way in which this study developed, a methodological discussion of how the author got into the setting, built trust and rapport, and balanced the twin roles of being both a researcher and friend would have been extremely informative. She also has little to say about the challenges faced by those who work for the state in areas like West Baltimore, whose organizations, like the communities they serve, are often understaffed, underfunded, and overburdened.

Nevertheless, given the book’s breadth and depth, these critiques are minor. The most significant feature of this book is the narratives that tell multigenerational stories spanning the lives of father and sons, mothers and daughters. Race weighs heavily in these stories, which attest to how neoliberal policies and anti-black sentiment have deepened the effects of poverty in West Baltimore. In terms of solutions, Fernández-Kelly notes that conservatives typically lack compassion, while liberals are too focused on creating programs to help without evaluating their effectiveness. Thus, she calls for an honest reappraisal of the forces that delay and diminish the full incorporation of impoverished inner-city populations into society. These forces include capital defection, redlining, residential segregation, and white flight, all of which work against the efforts of individuals to rise above destitution.

It is rare that I have the experience of reviewing a book that has left me emotionally drained and psychologically exhausted, but also more attuned to the world around me. What Patricia Fernández-Kelly has described across space and time should be alarming. The Hero’s Fight is exceptional in the extreme, compelling in its scope, scale and complexity.

Waverly Duck
University of Pittsburgh