Can Philadelphia Reverse Racism?

Former Philadelphia police chief Frank Rizzo was so serious about law and order that he once showed up to a black tie banquet with a matching nightstick. He won national prominence (and two terms as mayor) by defending the police practice of dumping black suspects into rough white neighborhoods rather than wasting time with the formalities of criminal charges. In the midst of the civil rights era, these “turf drops” made Rizzo more popular with Philadelphia voters, not less.

Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey simultaneously begged for his support in the 1972 presidential race, ignoring the Civil Rights Commission’s complaint that Rizzo stonewalled its attempts to investigate police abuses. He chose Nixon, who embraced Rizzo despite (or probably because of) what a presidential aide called Rizzo’s “strong anti-black overtones.” A gigantic statue of Rizzo greets passersby in front of the downtown municipal services building.

It’s ironic that the increasing diversity of Rizzo’s old neighborhood, South Philadelphia, has transformed it into a virtual microcosm of this country’s inexorable demographic change. Vibrant Italian, Latino, Asian and African American communities are all within blocks of one another. The district’s growing Latino and Asian communities set up shop alongside the Italian restaurants and specialty grocers in the anachronistically named “Italian Market.” In the middle of this global village is continuing admiration for Rizzo, bluntly evidenced by his building-sized mural on Ninth Street.

That isn’t the only evidence of a backlash against minority “encroachments.” In 2006, the venerated Joey Vento, owner of Geno’s cheese steak shop, caused a national flap by posting signs that read “This is America: When ordering please speak English.” When the city said his English-only policy violated discrimination laws, Vento said he would go out in handcuffs before he took down the signs. This affront—obviously aimed at the nearby Hispanic community—probably helped his image with Rudy Giuliani, who made a high profile campaign stop there last year.

That’s because Giuliani is New York’s Frank Rizzo, a head busting pol who thrives on the subterranean racial anxieties of mainstream America. Enter Barack Obama, whose election offers a powerful symbolic glimpse of the post-racial Promised Land that hasn’t arrived yet. Of the two major philosophical buzzwords of his campaign, “hope” and “change,” his election is cause for the former but no guarantee of the latter. The American electorate has always oscillated between candidates like Obama who represent modernity and tolerance, and those like Rizzo who represent law and order.

That’s why it’s hard to gauge the real public impulse for change. But what is clear is that cities have a tremendous mountain to climb after another lost decade. Just walk through Philadelphia for proof. You’d think segregation never ended here, because in many neighborhoods it didn’t. Philadelphia’s school system still prepares students for its prison system, and white flight continues unabated. The city’s renaissance in cultural sites, chic shopping and dining makes it more attractive for tourists, but is out of reach for anyone with a low income.

This city like others is facing a steep budget shortfall. The response included shutting down 11 libraries that service mostly blue collar areas. One way or another, the federal government will have to respond to cities’ problems, even if it is only to prevent them from going under during the recession. How serious Obama and the American public are about reversing the most protracted problems of urban inequality remains an open question. Can we look forward to an era of invigorated public investment in vital areas like education, employment and infrastructure? Will we see a renewed push to end housing discrimination? Or are we headed for more cop out “market” solutions like the Clinton-era urban enterprise zones?

If I were to guess, I would bet on the latter. Obama appears worried that this is still the backlash electorate that went along with the right’s anti-urbanism for the past thirty years. All his Kansas rhetoric suggests that he’s well aware of the socioeconomic fault lines that still lurk below the surface — and which Rizzo’s mural symbolizes.

Tags: philadelphiaarts and culturepublic schoolsbudgetslibrariesracismrudy giuliani