Baltimore burned last spring. Freddie Gray’s death on April 19, caused by injuries sustained in police custody, inspired days of nonviolent demonstrations in the city. But peaceful protest turned into violent confrontation on the evening of April 25, and the city soon shuddered with arson and looting. Baltimore was on the front page of newspapers. The face of Freddie Gray appeared on screens across the United States.
Baltimore has long since settled back to calm. News of everyday poverty and violence rarely appears in publications beyond the local Baltimore Sun. When Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited West Baltimore in December 2015 and compared the neighborhood to a third world country, reporters barely blinked at this bold description of the modern American ghetto and proceeded to grill Sanders about his stance on the Islamic State.
Before the Baltimore protests and long before Sander’s remark, Dr. Patricia Fernández-Kelly, a Princeton sociology professor, was already concerned with conditions in West Baltimore. Fernández-Kelly is a light-skinned Hispanic woman from Mexico City who claims to get only “mildly offended” when people call her a woman of color. She built her career conducting urban ethnography research on migration and economy, chiefly in Latin America. With this kind of background, Fernández-Kelly might seem like an unlikely champion for black lives in West Baltimore, but she actually claims to be one of the original activists: as she sees it, the impoverished Baltimore neighborhood has revealed the unspoken realities of American poverty for decades.
“I came to the conclusion that ‘black lives matter’ a little before the movement started,” Fernández-Kelly said, pointing to her recent book The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in the Shadow of the State, an analysis of race, poverty, and government programs based on the ten years of fieldwork she did in West Baltimore in the 1990s. Princeton students and colleagues have come to expect such bold statements from Fernández-Kelly. She is uncompromising, a well-liked professor who regularly shames students who yawn in lecture. She stands, back straight, by her podium, scanning the faces in front of her for any sign of boredom. Her wiry short hair stays suspended around her face like an orbit of static electricity carrying all the energy of her passion. For all the attention she appears to have given her appearance, she carries herself with no-nonsense confidence.
Though Fernandez-Kelly began her original fieldwork for The Hero’s Fight nearly 20 years ago, she released the finished book only last spring, weeks before Baltimore’s protests made national news. Crafted in the same commanding and often-controversial tone with which she speaks, her book not only reveals the conditions in West Baltimore but also confronts progressives and conservatives alike in their attitudes toward government welfare programs. On both sides of the political aisle, she argues, “the emphasis in policy circles was, and continues to be, on changing individuals, not on modifying the circumstances.”
Fernández-Kelly proposes that only structural changes can make the American Dream real for people who have never had a chance at economic opportunity. She condemns modern welfare policy without calling for a reduction of government support. She identifies as a liberal, but she still exposes liberal pieties about the goodness of government for what they are, arguing instead that impoverished African Americans live in the shadow of an oppressive state. In so doing, she raises questions that reverberate well beyond Princeton University and West Baltimore. Is she naïve to argue, within a divided political system and the post-industrial unemployment of a global economy, for the complete recreation of the modern American welfare system? Or is the United States so blinded by partisanship, so resigned to poverty and racism, that it forgets that inequality is a solvable problem?
In the 1960s, before moving to the U.S., Fernandez-Kelly grew up in Mexico City. She saw the clash between poverty and privilege from a young age. Her father was a general manager at Caterpillar and her mother had only the equivalent of an eighth-grade education, something that Fernández-Kelly never noticed as a child. She was raised in an upwardly mobile middle class home, surrounded by ideas, classical music, and art. Her parents always lived a little beyond their means. They built a house in what was then the fanciest district of Mexico City, and Fernández-Kelly was able to attend the best private university at the time, Universidad Iberoamericana, where she studied art history. Her family was not rich — and certainly not part of Mexico’s old-money elite — but Fernández-Kelly grew to understand her own privilege by witnessing real poverty: “In Mexico, it wasn’t possible to go out the door without confronting the evidence of inequality and injustice,” she recalls. “Because I went to a private university, I remember quite clearly that there were only two options. One, you ignored it and came to the conclusion that poor people were just stupid because they were Indians and deserved their condition, or, you accepted a different interpretation.” That different interpretation is called leftist politics, and it remains with her today.
Fernández-Kelly refused to ignore the injustice that she witnessed. She remembers seeing street vendors — usually women — on the streets of Mexico City. They were part of an informal economy, not the regulated job market that policymakers talked about. The upper classes of the city felt that the women were a blight on the city, and so the mayor, Ernesto Uruchurtu, made removing these vendors a priority.
One cold December night, when Fernández-Kelly was around twenty years old, she left a show with her mother. Outside the theatre, she saw a woman roasting chestnuts to sell on a little stove. While Fernández-Kelly watched, a van from the mayor’s office slowly rolled by the woman’s stand. A man got out, grabbed the woman’s stove, and drove away. “I wanted to run and get her burner back,” Fernández-Kelly said. “That was her life. That was her livelihood. And I just couldn’t understand that they would steal that from her.”
For as long as she can remember, this sharp empathy preoccupied Fernández-Kelly. As a child, she thought she could do more than just help others — she felt she could save them. When she was 10 years old she was convinced she was a saint and practiced levitation, despite her parents’ disapproval. Her mother found the obsession so disturbing that she burned Fernández-Kelly’s Lives of Saints books. At first, Fernández-Kelly thought her mother was going to hell, but she soon found more secular manifestations of sainthood to admire, like the movie Lawrence of Arabia, starring celebrity heartthrob Peter O’Toole.
“I resonated very much with this grandiose representation of an individual with a big personality who was basically fighting every possible lost battle,” she says. “It’s not that I was taken by the actual historical character of D.H. Lawrence. It’s not that I was in love with Peter O’Toole. I wanted to be Peter O’Toole.”
She tried to apply some of the do-gooder qualities of her celebrity crush to her life. Dispirited by long meals and family meetings as a child, she constantly itched to do things — creative things. She wanted to be a teacher. She loved the idea of helping people through education, although she acknowledges that it was not a purely altruistic goal: in Mexico City, teaching was a prestigious occupation, much more so than in the United States.
Though Fernández-Kelly had originally studied art history, she soon felt drawn to the related field of anthropology. She studied social anthropology as a graduate student at Rutgers, and as her interests expanded to peoples marginalized by global inequality, she started teaching sociology. Now teaching at Princeton, she supports both undergraduates and colleagues. While other professors advise only a few students, Fernández-Kelly advises almost 20, and she exuberantly offers career and life advice to anyone enrolled in her classes. She regularly hosts dinner parties, cooking elaborate meals for students, faculty, and her friends from Princeton’s local community. Dr. Miguel Centeno, the director of the Department of Sociology, feels that Fernández-Kelly’s role is almost motherly for other sociology faculty: “She’s the emotional center of the department.”
This altruistic spirit, though, was not always as easy in Fernández-Kelly’s research as in her teaching. As I sat in her office, staring at the copy of The Hero’s Fight displayed prominently upright on the desk in front of me, I asked Fernández-Kelly how she became involved in such an extended project in Baltimore, and specifically in the lives of the families in the 98 percent African-American Upton neighborhood in the western part of the city. She gestured behind me to a cabinet situated beyond the direct gaze of visiting students and faculty. On the top shelf was a line of pictures in mismatched frames.
“It’s the children who started drawing my attention. I met that little girl over there in the gold frame whose pseudonym in the book is Clarise,” she said. She explained that originally she set out to do a small, exploratory project on deindustrialization, but then the kids made her want to more fully understand and help Baltimore.
Dr. Katrina McDonald, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, remembers how close Fernández-Kelly grew to her subjects’ lives: “As a Hispanic woman, she was invited into these black families. She felt like one of their aunties.” When McDonald first came to Baltimore 21 years ago, she became friends with Fernández-Kelly. After work, McDonald would tag along on Fernández-Kelly’s fieldwork, meeting many of the families from The Hero’s Fight. On each excursion, she witnessed a personal connection between researcher and subject: Fernández-Kelly took Clarise and other children in the neighborhood to the hairdresser and dance class. She helped them with their homework. She even sponsored four children’s parochial school education.
Whenever the topic turns to the families she knew in West Baltimore, Fernández-Kelly’s pursed lips tighten further and she dabs her eyes with a tissue so her eyeliner doesn’t get smudged. A few of the children who she observed in the neighborhood died. Most still live in poverty. As we spoke, she glanced over to Clarise’s picture in its little gold frame and said, “I’m sorry that I was not a better resource for her. That really haunts me, but I wasn’t able to protect her enough.” Regret made her assertive voice slightly waver.
Personal engagement in her research is very natural to Fernández-Kelly. “Patricia is probably a nicer person than I am, so she is kinder to her subjects than I might be,” Centeno explains, smiling. “I think that’s almost a reflection not of analytical preferences–just that she’s very kind and very generous.” But that empathetic connection to her subjects almost surely informs The Hero’s Fight. Fernández-Kelly structures the book around the stories of some of these subjects so that, as she sees it, their voices can be heard. She calls these stories “biographies” rather than ethnography because she believes that when you have a biography, it means your life matters. Without this book, those in power might never witness the lives of her subjects. If Lawrence of Arabia is a story of great failure, of lost causes, she likewise sees The Hero’s Fight, too, as a story of failure–not the failure of her subjects, but that of the liberal American welfare state. And in that story she appears as the messenger — or maybe the saint that she aspired to be in childhood — who exposes the cruel reality of government programs.
“In 1993, there was only one bank open for business in the fringes of Upton and Sandtown-Wenchester, two of the West Baltimore tracts where I conducted my research,” Fernández-Kelly notes in The Hero’s Fight. “There were no large chain supermarkets or fresh produce stores. By contrast, there were fifteen public agencies, including five community centers, seven halfway houses, two courthouses, and one office charged with the protection of children.”
Fernández-Kelly first observed those streets decades ago, but her description is not at all out of date. McDonald recalls how little the city has changed: “I often stand back and think, gosh, have things improved since I got here in 1994? I think in certain blocks–literally, in certain blocks of the city — you can see some improvements, but there are still so many parts that are the same. Just as bad, just as rough.”
As Fernández-Kelly explains in her physical description of the city, government institutions are central to West Baltimore’s decaying landscape. “While agencies designed to address the needs of the poor focus on surveillance, control, and retribution, those that deal with mainstream populations act in accordance to market dictates, treating individuals as consumers and citizens rather than victims or drains on the national treasure,” Fernández-Kelly writes. “State programs for the poor exacerbate social fracture and economic stagnation.”
Centeno agrees. He explains with exuberant enthusiasm that The Hero’s Fight adds fresh insight to sociology: impoverished people experience the American government differently than the rest of the country.
“The state is actually much nicer to the rich than it is to the poor,” Centeno argues. “I use all the public goods of the state much more so than my poor neighbors.” Roads, public libraries, and a respectful and helpful police force are all key, helpful features of a healthy state–and this is generally how the middle class experiences things. The government, however, has a more invasive, regulatory presence in the lives of people who lack power. Medicaid, food stamps, child protective services, and aggressive and often racially charged interactions with police – these services are drastically different from those of the middle class world.
Fernández-Kelly’s argument is unusual: it pushes against both conservative and liberal positions. Most right-wing thinkers would agree with Fernández-Kelly’s denunciation of the welfare state: the core tenet of the American right is that small government is good. Notable conservative thinkers like the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman argue for shrinking government programs. Friedman wrote, for instance, that as many schools as possible should privatize, thereby increasing competition and forcing the remaining public institutions to improve their classrooms. Conservative politicians apply the idea of small government to the welfare state, but in most contemporary rhetoric the logic on poverty programs has less to do with quality and competition and more with individual motivation: as government intervenes in the free market with large “handouts,” impoverished people have fewer incentives to work and pull themselves out of poverty. So runs the argument.
Unsurprisingly, as a left-wing professor in a liberal sociology department, Fernández-Kelly isn’t a fan of this view. “Poverty is explained in terms of individual laziness or defectiveness,” she explains. “The conservatives demonize the poor.” This in itself is no revolutionary critique: liberal scholars regularly denounce the conservative attitude on welfare, often more harshly. Yet unlike her contemporaries, Fernández-Kelly does not limit her wrath to conservatives; she also harshly criticizes left-wing welfare programs. “The liberal orientation has always been about the helping hand, which I find as brutal, humiliating, degrading, and coercive as the conservative narrative,” she says, explaining further that welfare programs have a “vertical understanding of charity,” one that seeks to change the behavior of poor people. As a result, most mainstream liberal policies aim only for palliative reform, not systematic change.
Fernández-Kelly uses teen pregnancy as an example. Countless schools and nonprofits throughout the country establish sex education programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies — especially in impoverished areas — with little success. Teens like Latanya Williams in West Baltimore know about birth control. They know about condoms. Yet at age seventeen, Williams was pregnant with her second child.
“The common wisdom is that adolescent pregnancies are the reason why young women drop out of school, but when you actually look at the lives of young women who become mothers at an early age, the sequence is precisely the opposite,” Fernández-Kelly explains. “It’s because they don’t see a future through education that they resort to motherhood as an affirming way to mark their transition to adulthood.” In other words, for a middle-class American teen, unexpected pregnancy means giving up education and a career path. When those avenues are already closed off to impoverished teens, motherhood carries fewer consequences. Parenting actually seems like a viable alternative for meaning. In areas like West Baltimore where opportunity is scarce, even good sex education programs have little chance of success: they try to change the actions of marginalized girls without acknowledging what real poverty is like.
Amidst the heartbreaking stories of her subjects, Fernández-Kelly scatters The Hero’s Fight with small signs of hope. She recalls that the American government historically was a great tool for socioeconomic mobility. “Immigrants from Europe arrived in this country, the vast majority of them, in a state of penury,” she explains. “They were poor, they didn’t have material possessions, they faced discrimination. Some of them were racialized–definitely the Italians as well as the Irish. So how did these folks get out of poverty?”
Her answer: along with hard work and an industrial economy, legislation like the Homestead Act of 1862 and the GI Bill of 1944 played a central role. These redistributive policies weren’t perfect, but they gave some poor Americans the tools to move up the social and economic ladder.
But the government excluded certain groups from these programs — particularly African-Americans — and continues to do so today. The 1935 Social Security Act was fragmented between benefits for the “deserving” poor–the elderly, white widows of soldiers, and the physically disabled–and separate programs directed at “undeserving” people: addicts, unmarried mothers, and the mentally ill, for instance. Today, redistributive programs like the GI Bill have disappeared entirely from American policy, while the demeaning assistance programs remain. Fernández-Kelly cites the lack of effective, well-funded government programs, compounded by the shrinking industrial state and entrenched racism, as reasons why African Americans have faced more enduring poverty in the United States than other racial groups.
Fernández-Kelly claims that pessimism inspires the current weak poverty programs: lawmakers write off inequality as the inevitable result of historical sins. “In that fatalistic outlook,” Fernández-Kelly writes, “the only course of action is the multiplication of ad hoc assistance programs to address poverty’s multiple afflictions.” But American history actually points to better solutions. If the same redistributive programs so effective for European immigrants could be applied to minorities in West Baltimore, opportunities for real economic growth in low-income communities might arise.
“Huge investments in education, the expansion of property rights, material accumulation, and political participation have conferred on several generations of working-class people access to prosperity and the benefits of democracy,” Fernández-Kelly notes. “There lies the true meaning of the American Dream.”
National Public Radio recently called Fernández-Kelly to interview her about poverty in West Baltimore. Fernández-Kelly gathered the impression that the reporter left very dissatisfied with the solutions described in The Hero’s Fight. “She mentioned that $11 million, some ridiculously small amount, had been invested in the Baltimore Development Foundation, or that the foundation for this-and-that had also made similar allocations,” said Fernández-Kelly dismissively. She replied that sums in the millions were simply not enough to actually make inroads in the ghetto, telling the reporter that the education title of the GI Bill received more federal funds than all the government spent to fund the reconstruction of post-WWII Europe through the Marshall Plan. Public Radio has not yet aired the interview.
Coupled with her uncompromising commitment, Fernández-Kelly’s optimism for the possibility of structural change borders on idealism. Her redistributive framework may very well be an idealism originally inspired by the Mexican political world of her youth: when guerilla communist movements surged throughout Latin America, Cuba still stood as a symbol for resistance against capitalist and imperialist abuse, and liberal reforms flooded even the conservative Catholic Church. Many of her professors were Marxists; one with whom she was close was brutally beaten in jail for his activism.
Now, Fernández-Kelly repeatedly invokes the American Dream — her background in Latin American leftism does not, of course, prevent her from identifying with U.S. values of democracy, opportunity, and self-expression. Her optimistic solutions to entrenched poverty — ones based on legislation America has historically passed — raise questions for more legitimate reasons. She references past policies as examples of antidotes to current problems without addressing how these ideas might function differently in the current political and economic climate. These ideas only arise in the conclusion of her ethnographic book, and as a sociologist, Fernández-Kelly has no responsibility to provide an in-depth policy proposal. But the past legislation she praises presumes a very redistributive concept of the state, one that resides on the fringe of today’s political discourse. American voters and lawmakers were historically more inclined to advocate for redistributive legislation than they are today.
The modern global economy also differs from the economic climate of the 1944 GI Bill: a new kind of poverty arises in the modern post-industrial system, throwing into question the efficacy of redistributive policy grounded in the boom of American manufacturing. Fernández-Kelly acknowledges the challenges of this new economic system, writing in The Hero’s Fight that the shift to this new economic order wrought almost irrevocable havoc on working class and impoverished black communities. Those in Baltimore who initially suffered from the deindustrialization that occurred when manufacturing left the United States were mostly African Americans. The second wave of the Great Black Migration had just occurred — between roughly 1950 and 1970 — and during this time the black population of Baltimore had increased by almost 24 percent. These black factory workers were the first to be fired and face widespread unemployment. Domestic minorities like those now concentrated in West Baltimore are, in Fernández-Kelly’s words, “made increasingly redundant by global economic integration.”
These are the economic conditions that make America’s modern poverty far more challenging to solve that in previous eras, and they damper the optimism that concludes Fernández-Kelly’s work. Poor European immigrant factory workers from past centuries and marginalized black residents of West Baltimore today differ not only in skin color: the poor now face increasingly uncertain employment in a country with few manufacturing prospects. Even Fernández-Kelly herself falters on the solutions that she sets forth so confidently. If impoverished minorities in the U.S. are now “redundant,” as Fernández-Kelly argues, can we actually rely on past government initiatives to alter modern poverty? Fernández-Kelly paused, and her usual optimism faded. “Not for the very poor, who now represent a whole world apart from our world,” she replied. “That’s the whole problem that we’re looking at in urban sociology right now. The jury is out, but clearly the avenues for upward mobility in the United States have changed dramatically.”
It was Patricia Fernández-Kelly’s birthday when I first interviewed her. As I walked into her office she sat at her desk, scrolling eagerly through the hundreds of congratulatory Facebook posts she received. Her excitement at social media popularity was comparable to that of an eager preteen, except she delighted not only in the quantity of messages but also in their diversity: some were written in Spanish, some of their authors were very educated, some had recently gotten out of prison, some were book editors. A few were the children in The Hero’s Fight, now grown up, including Clarise.
It is rare to find anyone whose Facebook friends span this cross section of the American population–and it is precisely this class separation, rather than the global economic system, that Fernández-Kelly identifies as the central obstacle to political change. “Poverty is so highly racialized in this country, and exacerbated by high levels of residential segregation, that most middle class people do not have an opportunity to interact with poor people,” Fernández-Kelly said. She then leaned slightly towards me in her swivel chair and raised her eyebrows a little. She said bluntly that I was the kind of person who benefited from the global economy, and that I have more connections and common experiences with people of the intellectual elite in Tokyo, Paris, Nigeria, or Mexico City than I do with her subjects in West Baltimore. This prevents middle class Americans like me from understanding true causes of inequality. All too often, it also prevents them from caring.
Fernández-Kelly’s ideas demand this self-confrontation, a frank assessment of the social forces lying dormant beneath policy choices. The life stories of her subjects, combined with historical narratives, bring to light a reality of West Baltimore and of American urban poverty more generally: marginalized minority groups experience the State differently than do we. The policy solutions she presents are up for debate — they would require a revolution, more or less — but this self-confrontation is the first step toward any kind of change. Fernandez-Kelly is the sharp and subtle intellectual embodiment of today’s demotic refrain “check your privilege.” Identifying underlying patterns of marginalization is the same logic driving the Black Lives Matter movement, which links stories to mobilize Americans for a cause. This is what movements do, this linking of stories together. “You have an incident and the incident creates a ripple effect because it connects with the mass media. Suddenly, patterns that were not available before are made available to the public,” Fernández-Kelly said. “It’s not just Trayvon Martin. It’s that Trayvon Martin is like Ferguson’s Michael Brown, like Tamir Rice, like Eric Garner.”
The day before her birthday, I went with Fernández-Kelly to the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, the first African-American church in Mercer County. When not humming and tapping her heeled feet to the piano’s beat or singing psalms exuberantly, Fernández-Kelly would lean over in the pew and tell me the life histories of members of the congregation. That older man in the first row? He’s from Savannah, Georgia, and his father was in the army. The young boy to the right, he plays the piano and is very bright. The pastor called the children to the front of the church to hang ornaments on a small Christmas tree. They attended to their task, faces earnest with a serious sense of responsibility, and Fernández-Kelly’s mouth turned hopefully up into a slight smile. Their stories were very different from the ones of those in entrenched poverty, of children who deserve but cannot have.