Philadelphia’s poisonous, tired relations make me want a beer.
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 Domelights.com 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 Philly.com commenters. Isn’t it interesting, though, that Philly.com 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: Philly.com 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.
We’re going to need a lot of beer, Philly. I’ll bring the Yuengling. ■
From the Inquirer: An association of black police officers sued the Philadelphia Police Department in federal court yesterday for allowing its officers to post “blatantly racist, anti-minority, disgusting and offensive” content on a popular website devoted to law enforcement topics. The suit says that domelights.com, which bills itself as “the voice of the good guys,” was founded and is moderated by an active duty Philadelphia police sergeant who uses the name “McQ” in his postings. The league said that white police officers post and moderate the site while on duty, sometimes in front of black officers. There's a lot of bitching and moaning at Domelights' message boards about the suit and the assault on free speech. And being free speech fans around here, normally we'd be inclined to agree. Except. If white officers really are using taxpayer-funded time to post rants to Domelights -- well, they don't have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights at all time when they're on the job. And if the brass hasn't been, um, policing this situation, well, it's about time they start. Anyhow, we'll leave you with some "voices of the good guys" at Domelights responding to the suit: __________ 1ST I.D. COP Today, 01:06 PM Don't forget, you only...
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