Baltimore’s Sandtown is getting used to media blitzes. After the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in April, the subsequent protests and a night of rioting brought lots of journalists, but the national media probably weren’t due back until it was time for “one year later” stories. But on Tuesday Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made a stop there. He spoke on the need for jobs and better housing, but what dominated coverage of the event was his off-the-cuff reaction to Sandtown: “You’d think we were in a Third World country.”
I lived in Sandtown for six years and recently moved to South Sudan. There are a few similarities, yes, but there are also some very important differences that the language of “Third World” misses.
First of all, the term “Third World” is a Cold War relic that should be retired along with proxy wars and terrible accents in movie villains. It is not meant to elucidate anything positive when it is used to describe a place. Instead it attempts to politely signal “abject poverty” by using the language of geopolitical otherness. Even the crustiest old colonizers I know have switched to the more politically correct term “developing world,” which more accurately reflects reality.
Even when one grants that the poverty in Sandtown can be clearly seen just by walking through the neighborhood, the reference to the “Third World” neglects the history that shaped this poverty. Where I live now in South Sudan looks the way it does because some things were never built, but also because the northern government bombed anything that looked like infrastructure and spread landmines across anything that didn’t. Baltimore was shaped by racism, too, but in more subtle forms designed to slowly poison and suffocate what people owned rather than instantly blow up or burn it. Knowing the local history of how an impoverished community got to be that way is crucial to addressing how to make things better.
This may seem like a pedantic point or a gotcha game, but one of a presidential candidate’s jobs is carefully choosing words to foster trust and communicate vision, and the vision that Sanders is communicating is one of pity. (To be fair, his next event was framed as a “listening session” and while most of the pastors don’t work in Sandtown, they represented a broad base of African-American Baltimore’s concerns.) The optics of poverty are crucial and people should see how terrible certain parts of Sandtown look—they reflect a systemic neglect that ought to be a cultural shame. Some voters may need to be moved by pity, guilt, or shame in order to go along with a more radical economic plan, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that the poverty in Sandtown is self-evident.
Yet there are other parts of Sandtown that don’t look like the developing world. At the same time, they aren’t mistaken for an affluent block in another part of Baltimore, nor do they look like suburbs. They have their own character, having been clawed back from urban decay by the hard work of local residents partnering with foundations and city government.
The 1200 block of Whatcoat Street. Not shown: banana plantations, pile of AK-47s, children in rags playing soccer
The block next to the house I still own was the winner of 2009 Afro News Clean Green Block Award; it is still kept meticulously, as can be seen above. Those houses were rebuilt by a different set of forces than the block that Habitat for Humanity renovated, as each part of the neighborhood has retained or recreated its own character. There are streets in the neighborhood that I would avoid in broad daylight and others where I would happily let my toddler wander around.
Politicians should be commended for spending time in neighborhoods where poverty is having obvious effects. I recognize that 20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time for a man who is running for president to visit an area that had voter turnout in the single digits, and I do not begrudge Bernie Sanders that he did not see the Clean Green Block Award winner. Doing so certainly would have made the narrative that day more complicated, which is exactly the point—there is only so much that a president can do for any one particular neighborhood or even a certain set of neighborhoods with similar characteristics.
The impulse to lump all poor communities together with “Third World” discourse also makes it easier to assume that they have monolithic opinions (which often conveniently agree with whoever is invoking “the voice of the community”). If you talk to people in Sandtown about how to address the issues facing their community, they will almost invariably mention the same sorts of things that have made Bernie popular on the campaign trail, including more generous government funding for jobs and housing. But they will also usually bring up the urgent need for cultural or spiritual renewal, a stronger sense of fatherhood, and greater personal responsibility as part of fighting poverty.
This mixture of discourse from approaches typically dividing left and right is by no means universal, either, which is why talking about particular places with such universal language is so dangerous: it constrains the political imagination to suppose that the right set of fixes in Washington will bring flourishing to Sandtown and Muskogee alike. While some of Senator Sanders’ plans have the potential to help poor people across the country (such as greater support for worker-owned cooperatives), others could hurt the poor with a blundering colonial instinct to help, overzealous in its confidence that it has seen Sandtown and now knows what Sandtown needs.
Aside from any reservations about the senator’s host on his Baltimore trip (a local pastor known more for his showmanship than his shepherding), I am concerned as someone who loves Sandtown that Sanders didn’t talk about the good work that is already happening there and in many impoverished places. There are local leaders and local initiatives that are working to address the economic, cultural, and social issues that perpetuate poverty; most policy efforts will crumble without thinking about ways to support (or create more of) these front-line soldiers. As crucial as top-down efforts are to mitigating poverty—particularly the emphasis on ending mass incarceration and finding ways to create more jobs that are accessible to low-skilled workers—Baltimore’s government-directed “community development” efforts (like a certain casino) often do not account for the bottom-up work that takes place in homes, churches, and other civic institutions.
I’m glad that people like Bernie Sanders are drawing attention to urban poverty in places like Sandtown. We should be vigorously debating whether or not the policies he proposes would help—but more importantly, we should be thinking about the vast number of things policy cannot do in forming character, strengthening families, and building up the institutions that promote solidarity. After all, one man’s election cannot change the way any one neighborhood looks. It takes neighbors working together to do that.
Matthew Loftus teaches health workers and practices family medicine in South Sudan with his family (MatthewandMaggie.org). Before that, he lived with his family for six years in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.