So I was preparing to fly back home from Philadelphia last week when I briefly made the acquaintance of someone on a rental-car shuttle bus. I never got his name. He was sitting up front, in the passenger seat, a huge, broad-shouldered white dude of middle age in a blue blazer and buzz cut. The poor sap had a flight leaving in less than an hour, whereas I had plenty of time, so we commiserated over this inequity before eventually getting to the obligatory, “You headed out or headed home?” He was headed home, to Cincinnati, after attending a “military justice convention” in southern New Jersey. Unbidden, he indicated that he couldn’t get out of Philly fast enough.
I asked him what he meant because, with Clara in school there, Sharon and I are spending our first-ever, legitimate leisure time in Philly and we’re frankly a sucker for its many charms. “It’s just so dirty here,” this guy said, adding that while Cincinnati has its own problems, “there are just so many homeless people here. It doesn’t feel safe.”
Doesn’t feel safe?
“Like you feel when you’re on the south side of Chicago.”
Well, this was all the code language I cared to exchange with this fellow, a 265-pound military justice professional who presumably has an understanding of actual war zones but nevertheless is made uneasy by urban surroundings — or, more likely, by the sensation of minority status in a country one believes to be “white”.
This is where we are today, people. Rhetoric matters. How does one avoid tying this guy’s attitude directly to having a political candidate, and now a president, who talks incessantly about the “carnage” of American urban life? [When he’s not talking about the bodily fear we should feel in the presence of brown people, be they Hispanic or Arab?] For more than three years now he’s been trotting out this fear-mongering (as opposed to solutions) from a place of high visibility and authority. Seems to me it has colored the way a whole lot of white people view urban areas, people of color, homeless people, even the global universality that is urban grit and grime. More likely, they’e long felt this way and now feel emboldened to verbalize it.
The south side of Chicago reference was the kicker: Straight from Steve Bannon’s white nationalist gob to this guy’s ear, via Twitter and Fox News.
There are plenty of Philly folk who learn my daughter is an undergraduate at Penn and raise their eyebrows, as in “That’s not a great part of town… ” True enough and so much better for it. You wanna live the entirety of your existence in some gentrified green zone, or perhaps a gated community in a lily-white suburb, or maybe some pastoral exurb where gangs of dangerous immigrants or urban toughs can’t find you?
Or do you want to get a decent cheese steak around the corner, or check out the Phillies at Citizens Park, or maybe hop on the SEPTA and go clubbing?
For me, and for Clara apparently, that’s an easy decision. Less so for large portions of Americans.
There is no getting around the fact that Philly, like so many American cities, is largely segregated by race. We could get into the reasons why (i.e. redlining, the discriminatory and completely purposeful practice of fencing off areas where banks would avoid investments based on community demographics). But it seems beyond churlish to further isolate black folks — and reflexively stereotype black life as hyper violent — when it’s exactly the predations of white power and race fear that ghettoized/marginalized this “demographic” in the first place.
It’s pretty obvious why 19th Century white southerners so feared violence and sexual predation from black folk: Those particular white folk recognized their own participation in the centuries-long perpetration of violence and sexual predation against black populations, before and after Emancipation. On some level, white Southerners were frightened of the payback they knew was due them.
Seems to me a whole lotta white folk today are particularly frightened, or buy into Trump’s rhetoric all the more quickly, in part because they recognize — deep down in their historically rational subconscious — that their own white privilege/supremacy has been central to or complicit in a similar 21st century dynamic.
Too much of white America today (including our friend on the rental car bus) has developed a knee-jerk fear of black folk, most of it completely unwarranted… Then again, when you’ve been holding down or otherwise screwing a group of fellow citizens this long, this systematically — based on nothing but the color of their skin — it’s only rational to expect those people to retaliate in kind.
No white person in America today is exempt from this phenomenon. The outgrowths of these cultural prejudices are inescapable. When I drove south on this trip, from the northern Philly suburbs to grab Clara one evening for dinner, one of my local friends advised that I avoid the famously traffic-choked I-76 corridor. So I took the surface roads, which took me right through the solidly African-American enclave of West Philly. I got nothing of the menacing vibe my Cincinnati rental-bus friend got. It was nearly spring there in the Mid-Atlantic; folks were outside, porch-sitting, gossiping, working on their cars. As a Maine resident, I felt nothing but the thrill of warm weather. I drove through 20-25 blocks of this area with my windows down, doors unlocked, and never felt the least bit unsafe.
And yet… Because I don’t know my way around Philly that well, I knew that eventually I would pass over Market Street, whereupon I‘d be able to divine exactly where to go vis a vis the Penn campus. At some point, headed south on 42nd Street, I saw a white guy with a backpack walking north. I’ll admit it: I thought to myself, “Okay. I must be getting close to Penn.” Sure enough, Market was two lights away.
No one is immune.
I’ve saved the best irony for last: When our military justice conventioneer was painting this sorry picture of Philadelphia, I couldn’t help but notice the shuttle driver, a black dude, nodding his head. Where I said nothing, our driver chimed right in: “Mmm-hmm. This place sure ain’t what it used to be…”