Differentiation explains why Philadelphia can have a black mayor, a black police commissioner and many black members of City Council, yet remain one of the most segregated and unequal cities in the country. It explains how Barack Obama can be president of the United States, a powerful man in the world’s spotlight, while Shorty is stabbed to death in the dark over $5.
The book takes a surprising turn at the end, when Katz gets pensive about the role a historian plays in determining the future.
“As leftist historians composed a narrative of failure, they unwittingly gave the right a gift—an interpretation that could be appropriated in the campaign to reduce the size and influence of government,” writes Katz.
It’s the old polarized story: If a government program has failed, conservatives point to that failure as evidence the government shouldn’t be in that business—even if the business is correcting decades of its own mistakes.
All this bad news presents Katz with a personal dilemma, too: How can he teach students the reality that American cities are failing without crushing their motivation to try to fix them?
Like with the book’s titular question, there’s no easy answer. Katz refers to the writer Ananya Roy. “I teach in the impossible space between the hubris of benevolence,” wrote Roy, “and the paralysis of cynicism.”