The Other America—Waiting to Be Heard

By George Abry

Photo of book, "Coming of Age in the Other America."

Photo of book, "Coming of Age in the Other America."The 2015 death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, a young African-American man who died while in police custody, reinforced urban stereotypes and led to protests about racial inequality. Much news coverage of the unrest that erupted after his death depicted Baltimore as a hopeless case, whose inner-city youth were “thugs” bent on violence.

A new book, Coming of Age in the Other America, co-written by Johns Hopkins sociologists Stefanie DeLuca and Kathryn Edin, along with Saint Joseph’s University sociologist Susan Clampet-Lundquist, challenges those assumptions. Their research shows that a large majority of poor youth reject violence and drugs, and hunger for an education and career path. The authors show how federal and state policies could stop “social reproduction,” the tendency of children to inherit their parents’ predicament.

At the time of Gray’s death, the authors had spent more than 10 years conducting interviews with 150 black youth who had been born into some of Baltimore’s deadliest neighborhoods and grown up in poverty. The authors also talked to parents and teachers to learn how young people from deeply disadvantaged origins navigate the transition to adulthood.

“I think a number of things surprised us,” says Edin, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology. “These kids were just so ‘good,’ and their remarkable conventionality and desire to be just like everyone else was very striking. The stereotypes about these kids are so strong, but these are really perseverant kids who want to have careers and be a part of America.”

For example, the book interviews Antonio, who, until age 7, lived in Flag House Courts, a high-rise public housing complex. His mother maintained a subscription to the Baltimore Sun, which Antonio read voraciously each day after school. Conscientious about his appearance, Antonio washed car windows to make extra money to buy new clothes for school, eventually working at Kentucky Fried Chicken. At age 23, Antonio was working as a security guard at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Even though he had his own car and an apartment, he aspired to become a police officer one day so he could help protect people. Antonio considered himself a survivor, someone who “was never attracted to negativity.”

“What is fascinating is no one sits down with these kids and asks them questions, so once they get comfortable everything just starts spilling out because it’s a rare chance for them to be heard,” says DeLuca, associate professor of sociology, who co-directs the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins with Edin.

The interviews yielded an unexpected theme: the importance of what the authors call “identity projects,” creative activities young people pursue on their own, which might include dancing, poetry, art, and music. The authors discovered that these activities are a life-line for urban youth.

“Half the kids we talked to had cultivated an identity project,” says DeLuca. “We started realizing that there’s this inner life in the inner city; these passions, these things they do with their friends or in private.” For instance, 20-year-old Vicky raised pigeons in a backyard coop she built with her father.

The voices in Coming of Age resonate beyond Baltimore, says DeLuca. “There is incredible potential in these youth and youth across the country. A hunger to become something, a drive to do the right thing, repeatedly going back to school, trying to find work; that’s an incredibly optimistic piece of this story.”

Unfortunately, that optimism rarely makes the news. “The news focuses on the most threatening aspects of inner-city life, then paints a picture of that as the norm,” DeLuca says. “We find that to be the opposite of what is true.”

Edin says the authors wrote what they call a “cross-over” book, in order to appeal to broad audiences, including decision makers. Likewise, the authors wanted to contribute to the literature on emerging adulthood. “If you write a book simply and clearly, it’s possible to make an impact in a variety of domains,” says Edin.

DeLuca says sound social policies can inspire change and improve the lives of urban youth. “We need to reintroduce arts funding in schools to help kids cultivate identity projects,” DeLuca says. “We also need to think about residential inequality so we don’t create separate but unequal neighborhoods.”