Arsenic and Old Race

Philadelphia’s poisonous, tired relations make me want a beer.

By Joel Mathis 
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Aug. 4, 2009

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A little more than a year ago, while we were preparing to welcome our first child, my wife and I decided to move from Kansas to Philly. We loved Lawrence, a university town with some great basketball and plenty of talk about “diversity”—but all that meant was that Lawrence voted Democrat while the rest of the state voted Republican. The reality was that barely 5 percent of the town’s population was black. We decided to get away from Lawrence’s comfy ivory-tower atmosphere and move someplace where our son wouldn’t be surrounded by people who looked, talked and believed the exact same things his parents did.

So we came to Philadelphia, and now, it seems, he’s surrounded by racists.

Last week, an African-American worker at the city’s Northwest Transfer Station in Roxborough told the Daily News he literally shit his pants because his supervisor made him walk five flights of stairs to use the bathroom—while white colleagues got to use a nearby “supervisor’s bathroom.”

That’s right. Segregated bathrooms. In Philly. In 2009.

“On several occasions I’ve actually defecated on myself, trying to get down to the bathroom,” Lonnie Powell told the DN. The city denies the allegations—though Powell has a few colleagues joining him in his lawsuit—but it certainly has the ring of plausibility, doesn’t it?

After all, don’t we collectively crap our pants about racism in Philly, oh, every other week or so? Cops at are making racist comments. Crap . A group of black youngsters gets turned away from Valley Swim Club. Big crap. A cop (again) sprinkles his conversation with racial slurs while talking to a Temple journalism student. Crap .

That’s off the top of my head. I haven’t even mentioned Joey Vento or the notoriously trollish commenters. Isn’t it interesting, though, that didn’t allow comments for the online version of the Daily News piece about Lonnie Powell? It’s like the editors have simply given up: Everybody knows that comments on any story about race will immediately spiral out of control and put Philly’s ugliest face out to the wider world. Better to strangle that line of conversation in the crib.

Philly, I think it’s time we had a beer.

I know, I know: We’re always having a beer in Philly. But we haven’t had a beer the way President Obama had a beer last week—sleeves rolled up, hanging with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley—trying, with the force of his charm and a few frosty mugs, to defuse the nation’s latest racially charged incident. “A teachable moment,” the president called it, and goddamn if Philly isn’t chock-full of teachable moments.

The controversies in this town come fast, furious and with a heaping dollop of self-righteousness. It’s a quick, predictable cycle: Racial incident makes the paper, much breast-beating ensues— Segregated bathrooms? In Philly? In 2009? —and we move on. 

A few weeks later, we do the whole routine again. We’re so accustomed to the cycle, we’re not surprised. This is what happens here. It’s in the air.

I know: That’s hardly news. Except that we rarely seem to recognize it. A few months ago, when a white supremacist went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and killed a black security guard, the Daily News ran an incredulous article: Racists don’t always fly Confederate flags or drive beat-up pickup trucks! Sometimes they even live in New Jersey! Who’da thunk?

Oh, yeah: didn’t allow comments on that story, either.

The incident-by-incident coverage of racial friction doesn’t help matters. It enables the open-minded among us to take smug comfort in our own right-minded attitudes. Those cops are bad. That swim club is bad. Those commenters are bad. We get pissed about individual cases, but we don’t really have the energy to stay angry about the quiet, daily, ground-level atmosphere of racism that breeds such incidents in the first place. 

It’s not all bad. It’s been 30 years since Frank Rizzo left the mayor’s office and took the worst of his head-knocking techniques with him. Philadelphia now regularly elects black mayors—though that may reflect the city’s polarization—and there’s a case to be made that our city guaranteed Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. We don’t always suck.

But the next big racial brouhaha is coming. You know it is. And you know how it’ll play out. We’ll crap ourselves again. 

Enough already. 

We’re going to need a lot of beer, Philly. I’ll bring the Yuengling. ■

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. ihsanamin said... on Aug 5, 2009 at 10:52AM

“Why is this "news"? We've known this for decades.
Maybe the media isn't asking the right (common) people about it.”

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2. jp said... on Aug 6, 2009 at 03:19PM

“Well argued, cracker.”

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3. brendancalling said... on Aug 6, 2009 at 03:26PM

“what i've always found interesting is the way that some of the race wounds in philly have healed: like all scars, it's imperfect.

i used to work with two women, one white from kensington, the other black from southwest, who were best friends. I mean they did everything together: the families would go on trips together, to their kids' events, etc.

and yet these two women would say some of the most racially insensitive things to each other on nearly a daily basis, and totally unironically.

I finally came to the conclusion was that was how they dealt with race: imperfectly, clumsily, but at the same time sincerely.

philly's a weird place.”

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4. Burnsy part 5: Assignment Miami Beach said... on Aug 6, 2009 at 05:42PM

“Wow, this guy voluntarily moved from Kansas to Philly to live among the savages. He's a regular Jane Goodall”

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5. chesterar said... on Aug 8, 2009 at 09:01AM

That’s right. Segregated bathrooms. In Philly. In 2009.

Ever stop and think--after 40 years of gov't forced intergration that IT JUST DOESN'T WORK?”

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6. Sara said... on Aug 8, 2009 at 09:29AM

“Racism in Philly... Having grown up there, it exists and it's diversified. The problem with those who "crap themselves" like the author of this article, is they only do that when they see and hear the white variety. The black variety, not at all. Philly celebrates black racist doctrines and black selective segregation and black racial discrimination and calls it "diversity." Speaking of racist police officers, why is there an exclusive black racial police officer association spying on whitey? Did the author check to see what the white police officers' association had to say about those racist comments on

Today's diversifed racism is like a dog chasing it's tail. If we truly rejected racism, all of it would make us "crap ourselves" in equality. It does not which leads me to the conclusion that racism is used as a club by the self righteous racist wackos. It all stinks. But Philly worships crap. That is why I don't live there.”

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7. Iwoodluv2 said... on Aug 11, 2009 at 04:22PM

“To me racism involves a component of power/money/influence over another person of a different race. Historically anglo-europeans or whites have been in positions of power over most other races. As global commerce increases and more and more diverse races control more an more power/money/influence the term of racist will be turned on its ear and used against those whom were empowered using it before. As for the city of brotherly love it has always been segregated based on ethnicity, 20 years ago who would of thought that south 9th street would have less than 5 Italian vendors at the Italian market?... not me. Who would have thought any real estate by the University of Penn past 38th street would be desirable?... not me. What about the gentrification north of Temple U... oh that really hasn't happened yet but you get my point...As power of the oppressed class increases it will be less about racism and more about classism because no one wants to be one of 'those people'.”

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8. Deep said... on Aug 31, 2009 at 02:40PM

“In some cases Philly is worse than Alabama circa 1950. In Alabama they needed police officers to keep Blacks and Whites away from one another. Here, people just know not to go to the other side. You will never see a white face riding the Broad Street Line north of the Temple Campus. The only black guy you will see in Rittenhouse Square is the security guy at Barnes and Noble. We cannot even have a beer together, I have seen bars where almost everyone is black, and it is two blocks from another bar where almost everyone is white. WTF, here is an activity that both blacks and whites like to do, get drunk, yet it can't be done together.

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9. Deep said... on Aug 31, 2009 at 02:49PM

“In other case we can be quite progressive. In 2007, when Michael Nutter ran for mayor, he faced a challenge from Tom Knox, a white guy. Nutter had a lot of white votes, it seemed more white people voted for him than blacks. Meanwhile, Knox had a lot of black votes, more than half. Race was never the issue in the campaign.

Mount Airy is one of the most diversified neighborhoods in the city. It is home to middle class families that could easily be living in the suburbs. The neighborhood became what it is today, by being one of the few neighborhoods to resist white flight in the 1950's and 1960's. Churches and community groups were able to relieve white people's anxieties over blacks.

Living in the "Penntrified" neighborhoods of West Philly, I see more racial interaction than I would ever see in Montgomery County or in the Jersey suburbs. The Penn Alexander School should be applauded to for bringing together white kids, black kids, Asian kids, African kids, etc.”

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10. WhiteWomanfromPhilly said... on Oct 1, 2009 at 03:17PM

“You sound like a typical white liberal. Tell you what: my son and I will pick you up if you want, drop you off at 29th and Columbia at 3 AM and then when we come to find you in the morning (if you're still alive, that is), after you've had a great dose of TNB, you tell us if finally, your karma ran over your dogma!”


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