Why Baltimore Blacks Are Down and Out

Illus. from "Hard Times"

Illus. from “Hard Times”

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a very interesting article about black poverty in Baltimore and suggested a Josiah Bounderby parallel. So here goes.

Bounderby, of course, is the “self-made” factory owner in Dickens’ Hard Times who asserts that the poor deserve their poverty because they should be pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. After all he, who was born in a gutter and knocked around as a young child, did just fine:

I was to pull through it, I suppose, Mrs. Gradgrind.  Whether I was to do it or not, ma’am, I did it.  I pulled through it, though nobody threw me out a rope.  Vagabond, errand-boy, vagabond, labourer, porter, clerk, chief manager, small partner, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.  Those are the antecedents, and the culmination.  Josiah Bounderby of Coketown learnt his letters from the outsides of the shops, Mrs. Gradgrind, and was first able to tell the time upon a dial-plate, from studying the steeple clock of St. Giles’s Church, London, under the direction of a drunken cripple, who was a convicted thief, and an incorrigible vagrant.  Tell Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, of your district schools and your model schools, and your training schools, and your whole kettle-of-fish of schools; and Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, tells you plainly, all right, all correct—he hadn’t such advantages—but let us have hard-headed, solid-fisted people—the education that made him won’t do for everybody, he knows well—such and such his education was, however, and you may force him to swallow boiling fat, but you shall never force him to suppress the facts of his life.

Only, as it turns out, Bounderby has indeed suppressed the facts of his life—which are that he was born with advantages that became the basis of his success. Here’s the truth, as reported by his mother, Mrs. Pegler, when she is accused to having abused him:

‘Josiah in the gutter!’ exclaimed Mrs. Pegler.  ‘No such a thing, sir.  Never!  For shame on you!  My dear boy knows, and will give you to know, that though he come of humble parents, he come of parents that loved him as dear as the best could, and never thought it hardship on themselves to pinch a bit that he might write and cipher beautiful, and I’ve his books at home to show it!  Aye, have I!’ said Mrs. Pegler, with indignant pride.  ‘And my dear boy knows, and will giveyou to know, sir, that after his beloved father died, when he was eight years old, his mother, too, could pinch a bit, as it was her duty and her pleasure and her pride to do it, to help him out in life, and put him ’prentice.  And a steady lad he was, and a kind master he had to lend him a hand, and well he worked his own way forward to be rich and thriving.’

And now for the truth in Baltimore. According to Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, as reported by Vox, if whites do better than blacks there, it isn’t because whites have a better work ethic, commit fewer crimes, or do less drugs. It’s because they have hidden advantages that blacks don’t.

First, the bottom line:

[H]olding all else equal — city, income, schooling, prison records, etc. — it’s much, much harder for a black man to rise up the income ladder than a white man.

And now for Alexander’s two explanations. The first one he calls “the policing trap”:

Alexander and his colleagues found a terrible trap that affected the lives of Baltimore’s poor black people, but not its poor white people. According to their study, poor black kids and poor white kids used drugs and committed crimes at roughly similar rates — if anything, there was a bit more drug use among the white children in the sample. But poor black kids were much more likely than poor white kids to be arrested. And once they were arrested, a criminal record was a much bigger hindrance to a poor black man getting a job than it was for a poor white man.

At the same time, due to their income composition, demographics, location, and so on, black neighborhoods had a lot more crime than white neighborhoods. And so, even putting aside any issues of racially biased policing, they were policed more intensely.

This created, in essence, a trap that closed in on poor black kids. Their neighborhoods had more crime, and so they were policed more heavily. That meant that even though they didn’t commit any more crime than poor white kids, they were arrested more often. And when they got arrested, it was harder for them to get a job after prison than it was for a white kid who got arrested, so it became that much more likely they would turn to illegal ways of making money, which meant more crime in the neighborhoods, which meant more aggressive policing, which meant more black kids getting arrested, which meant more young black men held back by criminal records, and so on.

The other explanation has to do with access to the industrial and construction trades:

Alexander’s work shows something often forgotten in that debate: all kids make some bad choices, but he finds, over and over again, that society is much more forgiving of the mistakes white kids make than the mistakes black kids make, and that high crime in black neighborhoods has created an aggressive approach to policing — often, though not always, for well-intentioned reasons — in which black kids get caught for their mistakes more often than white kids.

At the same time, Alexander’s results show how a legacy of racial discrimination can lead to a persistent disadvantage for young black men. Alexander finds one of the reasons that low-income white kids without much education recover more easily from criminal records is that they often have family in skilled trades who can help them out. The industrial and construction trades, which were the best-paying jobs available to men without much education, employed 45 percent of whites but just 15 percent of blacks, and in those trades, whites earned twice as much as blacks.

The result was that a white kid who made a mistake as a 19-year-old was a lot likelier to have an uncle in plumbing or construction who knew him as a good kid who screwed up and could give him a second chance. That kid’s uncle wasn’t being a racist when he helped out his nephew, but because of historical racism in those professions, many more of those uncles are white, and so it was easier for white kids to get their lives back on track than it was for black ones. That same black kid was often just a resume with a criminal record, and so he didn’t get that second chance.

Rachel points out one significant difference between Bounderby and those members of the white working class who accuse blacks of being welfare bums: the white workers’ lives aren’t exactly rosy. They therefore can be forgiven for being blind to their subtle advantages over blacks.

Unfortunately, however, the poor will remain poor and middle class wages will remain stagnant until the country as a whole seriously addresses income inequality. When the lower tiers are set against each other, only the wealthiest Americans benefit.

We need a Mrs. Pegler to expose the bootstraps ideology for the destructive fantasy that it is.

This entry was posted in Dickens (Charles) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete