The Hero's Fight - Virginia Eubanks Review

The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State by Patricia Fernández-Kelly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 422 pp. ISBN: 9780691162843.

Contemporary Sociology (45, 5)

Patricia Fernández-Kelly has produced an insightful, illuminating, often infuriating masterpiece that explores the daily and nightly lives of poor and working-class African Americans in West Baltimore. Twenty years of scrupulous attention to their lived experience provides an intimate framework on which many current concepts in sociology founder, break up, and are reformed. It is an extraordinary book that should spur animated discussion in the classrooms, state houses, and living rooms of America.

The Hero’s Fight is ambitious in its breadth and scope. Fernández-Kelly addresses government institutions, free market economics, the passage to adulthood, entrepreneurship, faith and religiosity, social and cultural capital, neighborhood, and place, while remaining firmly rooted in the lives of seven ‘‘typical’’ characters: D. B. Wilson, Big and Little Floyd, Clarise, Towanda, Lydia, and Manny Man.

Fernández-Kelly’s central argument is that a combination of government intrusion, economic disinvestment, and predatory capitalism create conditions for the toxic persistence of poverty in neighborhoods like West Baltimore. A close reading of the book will yield myriad insights about everything from the retreat of capital investment in inner cities to the continued bitter results of residential segregation. But the heart of the book, and its most challenging argument, is that poverty entails a very specific engagement with the American State.

While government programs touch all of our lives, Fernández-Kelly argues, they do not touch us equally. Poor and working-class people, especially those from racially distinct populations, experience what Fernández-Kelly calls ‘‘distorted engagement’’ with the state. Their lives are infused with intrusive agency interactions characterized by suspicion, containment, surveillance, and penalization, which weaken self-determination for poor individuals (especially parents), fracture low-income urban communities, and cause economic stagnation (p. 115). ‘‘Liminal institutions’’ such as prisons, welfare offices, and public schools act as intermediaries between marginal populations and the state, ‘‘whose object is suppression and control rather than social integration’’ (p. 118).Rather than investing in the development of poor communities, Fernández-Kelly argues, these underfunded and moralistic programs palliate at best, and stigmatize and marginalize at worst.

One of the most valuable contributions of The Hero’s Fight is Fernández-Kelly’s pairing of seven life histories with the sociological concepts they most typify, illustrate, or challenge. Deftly, she demonstrates how many common concepts in sociology cease to function when confronted with the reality of poor and working-class people’s lives. For example, the experiences of Clarise—a bright and energetic young girl—show, contra Robert Putnam, that it is not a lack of social capital in poor neighborhoods, but rather an absence of material resources and external links that produces destructive effects in inner-city neighborhoods (p. 192). Similarly, the life stories of Manny Man and his father, Marcus Williams III, illustrate both the limitations of entrepreneurship in neighborhoods lacking sufficient investment and developmental institutions and the tragic trajectory of predatory capital.

Alongside her deft analysis, Fernández-Kelly tells gripping stories. Part of her goal is to ‘‘salvage biography in the study of impoverished persons . . . [and] achieve a more precise interpretation of the realities behind statistical facts’’ (p. 342). The individuals Fernández-Kelly describes are not one-sided illustrations of problems, but fully formed, multidimensional characters. Beginning from a place of intimacy and empathy, Fernández-Kelly reforms sociology as that place where history meets biography and the personal interfaces with the structural.

In the end, she argues that we already have the solutions we need to tackle entrenched urban poverty. In her estimation, a vigorous combination of ‘‘capital infusions and legislative muscle’’ (p. 344), rivaling the G.I. Bill and aimed at racially distinct urban populations, would eradicate many of the problems The Hero’s Fight describes. Part of the reason we have so far lacked the political will to undertake such an ambitious program is that the stories we tell ourselves about poverty blind us to the facts, both the statistics and the lived experience they represent. By returning biography to the sociology of economic stratification, Fernández-Kelly lights the way to the broad-based cultural transformations needed to eradicate urban poverty in communities of color and fulfill the American Dream.

Virginia Eubanks
University at Albany, State University of New York