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A Culture of Poor Baltimore

I tend towards not writing about places that aren't known to me and Baltimore fits that on multiple levels. I've never visited there, never had any conference to attend there, nor do I know its history very well. It must be like every other place with its eccentricities and culture, but some of it, from what I've been researching, is well known. Right now, people seem to be talking about the violence there without actually talking about the violence there. In an NPR piece that ran across my feeds this morning I read the headline, On the Streets of Baltimore, Trying to Understand the Anger. It immediately occurred to me that this article wasn't meant for me. I mean, it wasn't written for me in mind. The author isn't trying to talk to me about understanding anger that comes from systemically racist practices that got Baltimore here. 

That part, I understand. I understand the anger. 

What I could use help with, then, is understanding their history if it is so different from what I know and have experienced and have studied. Yet, it's a history which seems to be the apartheid history of the United States.

This is the easy part because having an understanding of the capitalism that requires the sustainability of inequality is what America is built on and we fool ourselves into any other version of that truth. The inequality is, by far, projected onto Black communities that have crumbled and are designed to do just that thing.

For instance, it's not lost on me that we had article after article recently of how Child Protective Services are going after mostly White, middle-class families in an attempt to curb their "free-range" parenting while stopping children on school busses in Baltimore are directly moving mostly Black, impoverished children into harm's way. That was neither an accident nor was it done with the safety of children in mind. It was malicious and disgusting to stop bus service at the end of a school day.

It doesn't even take much of a cultural awareness to see these things, either. Honestly. I'm no smarter than any other person paying attention. I'm no more ingrained to an intellectualism that allows me to see this iceberg theory of culture playing out in Baltimore.

There are the obvious parts of the top of the iceberg when it comes to culture. There's art and literature and food and concepts of beauty and entitlement to celebratory manifestations. 

It's the underneath part of the iceberg that's biting us all in the behind right now as we fight over property being more valuable than human life.

Underneath, there are rules of governing and patterns of handling emotions in the civic arena. There's body language and dog whistles and leadership and logic and validity. There are arrangements of physical space and social niceties. There are attitudes about poverty and dependency. There are the problems of mobility, both physical and economic. 

Keeping all that down is a White wealth escalator that drains expenses and marginalizes a population that is kept in place on purpose.

One of the activities we had to do during a workshop I recently attended on Understanding and Analyzing Systemic Racism was to build a poor community. We did this by drawing a poor community (and, by no means am I trying to characterize all of Baltimore as poor, but to show how we keep such neighborhoods in check) and listing things that we know are there. We don't have to live there to know what's there. 

It was an exercise in absolute exhaustion and I felt like we needed a trigger warning for "Americanism". 

Actually, the exercise was extended to include the "kicking feet" on communities that we try to keep down.

Just for a moment before you read on, think about the makeup of a poor community before I tell you what we came up with as a group.

Here's a sampling of what we listed:

Currency exchanges

Bars and liquor stores

Missions and food banks

Day labor

Mom & Pop shops

Storefront churches or old church buildings that have been made into something else

Empty houses

Section 8

Rent-to-own furniture and electronic stores

No sidewalks or curbs or fixed potholes

Limited transportation hubs

Crumbling homes and unkempt parks

Railways going through neighborhoods

Dialysis and diabetic health

Public health

Gas stations that double as grocery stores

Social services

We also discussed, quite extensively, the fact that we weren't going to add grocery stores to this neighborhood because there are so few. When there are grocery stores, they are some generic brand that offers few nutritional choices in the way of fruits and vegetables and sells red and purple "juice" in plastic milk jugs but very little actual food. We also left out industry and manufacturing plants because, of course, that's where the jobs are and if they're in your neighborhood you're likely to be one of the lucky ones.

The large colorful sticky notes surrounding the 'community' are a part of what keeps it that way.

Here's the thing: every poor community looks the same in these regards. I don't have to visit Baltimore to know what it looks like though it may have its own flavor of some of the things stated above. People wander around searching for jobs that don't exist. Kids are bussed to other parts of towns where those buildings have had better upkeep since theirs have been shut down. (I'm looking at you, Chicago.) 

People, well-meaning people sometimes, want to visit these neighborhoods and talk about violence but never offer jobs to those they are keeping down. Make no mistake: someone benefits from us having a poor population. People working in cities like Baltimore or towns like Ferguson are doing the most with their policies to make money off the backs of the poor all the while policing them in whatever manner they choose.

A friend recently shared some of Baltimore's statistics:


  • The population is 622,793.
  • There are approximately 16,000 abandoned homes.
  • An estimated 3,000 are homeless each night, an estimated 30,000 each year.
  • The Baltimore City high school graduation rate is 68.5%. The national average is 80%.
  • The median per capita income is $23,333. Nationally that is between $32,140-$39,509.
  • 63.7% of the population of Black.
  • The homeless population in Baltimore is steadily increasing; it exceeded 4,000 people in 2011.


I guess I just don't think about this being only about the killing of Freddie Gray. It is about politics and class warfare and crushing poverty from the kicking feet of capitalism. It is about the assumptions and privileges and benefits that people exploit in order to put a man with a severed spinal cord in the back of a van that leads to his death.

I remain perplexed by those who wonder about "understanding" the anger that led to the current events in Baltimore. I persist in confusion of those people asking about violence being the answer as if they somehow had it magically hidden in their back pocket the whole time.

Here! I had the answer! None of y'all asked me!

It was the original question: what happened in this city to this man and why is he dead? that leads me to watching these false narratives unfold about "riots" and come up with at least one answer. It is the perpetuated culture of the poor and the kicking feet of capitalism. It's the history of what White America inflicted on thriving Black communities (and those who allowed it to happen) not to mention the colonialism and disenfranchisement of Native Americans and Chinese and other cultures crushed by the wealth escalator that benefits Whites (and those who choose to identify as such).

But, what do I know? I don't live there.

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Reader Comments (3)

Kelly, thank you thank you thank you.

Tweeting you as well- I have a friend who is a 3rd grade teacher in one of these marginalized areas and he's asking for good resources for talking to kids about violence in the community?
He wants to be prepared when school starts up.

I immediately thought of you and your knowledge.

Ann aka BaltimoreGal.

April 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Coleman

I live in a poor neighborhood by choice. I just think it's an interesting place to live, and it is the closest place to the beach that I can afford, and I could not stand suburbia and it just felt like home.

But I see things. Our park has a skateboarding area. In the economically advantaged area, the skate park is monitored by adults and the kids have to wear safety equipment. Not here.

Our community center has a PAL boxing program. When is the last time you saw rich kids learning boxing? Why?

Our school's play yard finally got redone, but until then, there were tires buried in the dirt as play structures.

The park on the other side of town has soccer fields that look like professionals play on. Ours have so many gopher holes that you're likely to break an ankle.

I can't imagine that the tax money that goes into the Parks and Rec budget is mapped out anywhere so that most of it goes to the other part of town and so little flows to us...but even without a formal map, there's a map.

April 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

Such an excellent post, Kelly. Thanks for sharing this truth.

April 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

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