Kathryn Edin is a member of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, Bloomberg distinguished professor of sociology and public health at the Johns Hopkins University, and director of the 21st Century Cities Initiative. She combines qualitative and quantitative research methods in rich, detailed investigations of poverty in America’s cities.
Edin lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she saw riots, protests, and National Guard troops after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody.
In December, Edin talked about her experiences as a Baltimore resident and as a scholar and where things stood more than a year and a half after the unrest.
The full version of this interview is available via the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty. This transcript has also been edited for clarity and space.
Where were you when the unrest in Baltimore started?
My husband met me for a quick dinner at a restaurant called Pen & Quill, which had the virtue of having a lot of windows onto Charles Street [which runs downtown, near city hall]. We just happened to be there when a lot of Hopkins students were coming back from city hall, having, in many cases, engaged in their first real political act of protest.
In the aftermath of the unrest, we interviewed 60 young people who lived in the area where the unrest occurred. Many of them did not participate in the protests. What was striking is how we felt such license, as privileged whites, to participate in these marches. But many of the kids for whom these practices of police brutality had been most salient were too afraid to participate.
It was a frightening time, but it was also a time when the legacy of decades of oppression started to come to light.
I don't hear many academics use the word “oppression” to describe urban poverty and racism. What did that oppression look like from your perspective?
Your audience might know that redlining refers to practices by realtors and banks that left some communities completely starved of credit. Redlining—legalized segregation—was invented in Baltimore. It was quickly outlawed, but we were the first and only place to really legalize segregation.
If you look at maps of all the social ills that plague Baltimore now, and you overlay them on those historic maps of the redline, it's astonishing to see the correspondence. Generation after generation of folks have experienced that institutional, policy-driven oppression, in a myriad of ways, and, of course, that's been compounded by new sources of redlining. Many of those communities still don't have banks that will lend in them. This is not ancient history. It’s ongoing.
So I think in Baltimore's case, “oppression” is the correct word. In fact, it might not be strong enough to describe what’s been happening.
You've studied poverty in communities around the country. Are there elements that make Baltimore unique?
I’ve seen two unique things.
First, for a while, up until the recession and the real estate collapse, Baltimore was one of only a handful of cities across the United States that was seeing decreases in concentrated poverty and economic segregation. I believe they cut the number of high-poverty census tracts in the city in half.
But the other unique thing about Baltimore is the incredibly low rate of economic mobility you see intergenerationally. It's as if many young people have read the academic papers and really don't see Baltimore as a place where they can pursue, as one kid said, “who I'm going to become.”
The act of becoming, in their minds, has to take place outside of Baltimore. Even though they may love their city and feel connected to it in some way, most of them don't see a future in Baltimore. I have not seen that in other places.
One of the 21st Century Cities Initiative's early areas of focus was the conditions that led to last year's unrest. What did you and your colleagues discover with that body of work?
Our signature theme, inclusive neighborhood transformation, was born out of the realization that what drove the events of April was the history of segregation, of exclusion so deep that it’s amazing the lid was kept on the kettle as long as it was.
A lot of the young people we talked to in west Baltimore were confused about the specific impetus for the unrest. “Why Freddie Gray?” they asked. This came up over and over again in interviews. In probing them, they would say, “This happens all the time. There was nothing special about what happened to him. This is business as usual in our neighborhoods.”
The unrest is the indirect lineage of the redline. The redline is a shorthand for all of the political, institutional, and cultural sources of exclusion that have been layered on for generations.
How would you compare where Baltimore is now to where it was more than a year and a half ago? Can you point to any signs of progress?
There is another wave of redevelopment in the city, which I would characterize as inclusive. A lot of it is driven by non-profits in historically middle-class or working-class but now downtrodden African American neighborhoods, especially in the east side of Baltimore.
The goal is not to gentrify those neighborhoods but work toward inclusive revitalization—to really knit together renters and homeowners, middle-class nurses from Hopkins and struggling single moms who may be finishing a GED.
We still have a lot of crime. For many people, Baltimore feels palpably less safe than it did prior to the unrest. That will really hurt the city if we can't get it under control. But I do think the unrest was galvanizing for everyone, and there's a passion about the city that's pretty striking.
Are there colleagues in your field who look down on qualitative research methods, like those you use, as being insufficiently rigorous?
My most recent big project, $2.00 a Day, on extreme poverty, has a big survey component that's kind of the spine of the book, but the data are all ethnographic. It has increased my respect for the ethnographic method, which I do think a lot of folks look down on.
Now, the ethnographic method has its pitfalls, and those are important to recognize. In some ways, with really in-depth ethnographic work, you don't really know what it’s representative of. That's where I think ethnographers fail. Of course their findings are representative of something, but what is that something? Often, ethnographers don’t think hard enough about that question.
If leaders in Baltimore asked you how they could make the city a place where young people wanted to stay to grow into the people they’d like to become, what would you tell them?
The city that invented redlining must become the city on a hill, the place that shows the world that inclusive revitalization is possible and that the benefits of revitalization can flow to everyone.
Now, will Baltimore become Brooklyn? Well, 20 years ago, no one thought Brooklyn would become Brooklyn. It's possible. We're 38 miles from one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, and we have all these amenities.
We don't need to follow the template of every other city. We need to craft our own template, acknowledge our legacy of segregation, and create new forms of social cohesion across diverse population groups.