Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
"Being White in Philly" Explores "Whites, Race and the Things That Never Get Said"
The March 2013 issue of Philadelphia Magazine features a cover article, "Being White In Philly," with the sub-head, "Whites, Race, Class and the Things That Never Get Said."
Written by Robert Huber, the article explains how white and black Philadelphians live in largely separate worlds - and rarely communicate frankly with one another.
According to Huber:
White Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk with people, and it's clear it's a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.
The author provides a number of examples of such inter-actions. In one case:
Dennis, 26, teaches math in a Kensington school. His first year there, fresh out of college, one of his students, an unruly eighth grader, got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, he got into Dennis's face, and in the heat of the moment Dennis called the student, an African-American, a "boy." The student went home and told his step-father. The step-father demanded a meeting with the principal and Dennis, and accused Dennis of being racist. The principal defended his teacher. Dennis apologized, knowing how loaded the term "boy" was and regretting that he'd used it, though he was thinking, "Why would I be teaching at an inner-city school if I'm a racist?" The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it, except for one thing: The student's behavior got worse. Because now he knew that no one at school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.
Relations between black and white Philadelphians, in Huber's view, are characterized by:
Confusion, misread intentions, bruised feelings - everyone has a race story. . . . There's a dance I do when I go to the Wawa (a convenience store) on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color. . . . On one level such self-consciousness and hypersensitivity can be seen as progress when it comes to race, a sign of how much attitudes have shifted for the better, a symbol of our desire for things to be better. And yet, lately, I've come to fear that the opposite might be true: that our carefulness is, in fact, at the heart of the problem.
Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, more than 25 years after electing its first African American mayor, Huber argues that Philadelphia:
. . . remains a largely segregated city, with uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding. . . . Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations. . . . Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it's talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried. . . . Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.
Many racial interactions reported in this article show ill-will being demonstrated on both sides of the racial divide. White students in predominantly African American schools, for example, report being singled out for a variety of race-based harassments. The level of racial division and segregation in contemporary Philadelphia, which is mirrored in many other American urban areas, is, in many ways, incongruous with a society in which we have elected - and re-elected, a black president. Throughout contemporary America - in government, business, sports, entertainment, every sector of society, men and women advance on the basis of individual ability, regardless of race. Yet, for many, segregation remains an unfortunate fact of life.
"We need to bridge the conversational divide," concludes Robert Huber:
. . . so that there are no longer two private dialogues in Philadelphia - white people talking to other whites, and black people to blacks - but a city in which it is okay to speak openly about race. That feels like a lot to ask, a leap of faith for everyone. It also seems like the only place to go, the necessary next step. . . . Meanwhile when I drive to North Philly to visit my son (a Temple University student who lives in a predominantly black neighborhood), I continue to feel both profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape. Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that.
Philadelphia Magazine and Robert Huber have given us much to think about - as our country becomes increasingly diverse. Unless Americans of all races and ethnicities begin to speak openly and frankly with one another we will lack the cohesiveness necessary to bind our society together. We have come a great distance from the years of segregation, through which many contemporary Americans lived. This article shows us that there are still problems to be addressed and resolved - on the part of both white and black Americans. We have made significant strides in moving toward a color-blind society - something men and women of good will have long hoped to achieve. That some problems still remain does not make our achievements any less significant and noteworthy, and we continue to provide an example to the world - where the very idea of American nationality is not based upon common race, ethnic background or religion - but on a common commitment to live in a free and open society and bear its responsibilities. In this sense, despite problems that exist, America is genuinely something new and unique in the world.
Father's Day with Bill Cosby, an American Original
This Father's Day, I was invited by my son Burke and his fiance, Amelia, to attend a performance by Bill Cosby at Wolftrap National Park for the Performing Arts in Northern Virginia. Cosby proclaimed himself "old" - soon to celebrate his 76th birthday - but he sat on stage for nearly three hours, without a break, and there was never a lull in the laughter.
Cosby is truly an American original. Born in Philadelphia, he and his family lived in the Richard Allen Homes, a low-income housing project. He started shining shoes at nine and later found a job at a supermarket. Despite their hardships, Cosby's mother stressed the value of education and learning. She often read to Bill and his brothers, including the works of Mark Twain. While a student at Temple University, he landed a job as a bartender at a coffee house. He told jokes there and eventually landed work filling in for the house comedian from time to time at a nearby club. The rest is history.
In 1965, when he was cast alongside Robert Culp in the "I Spy" espionage series, he became the first African-American co-star in a dramatic series. At the beginning of the 1965 season, a number of stations declined the show. It quickly became a hit.
He later starred in his own sitcom, "The Bill Cosby Show," and was one of the major performers on the children's T.V. series, "The Electric Company," and created the educational cartoon comedy series, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," about a group of young friends growing up in the city.
During the 1980s, Cosby produced and starred in "The Cosby Show," which aired eight seasons from 1984 to 1992. It was the number one show in America for five straight seasons (1985-89). The sitcom highlighted the experiences and growth of an affluent African American family. In 1976, Cosby earned a Ph.D in Education from the University of Massachusetts. His dissertation discussed the use of "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" as a teaching tool in elementary schools.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Bill Cosby in the book, The 100 Greatest African Americans.
One thing Bill Cosby has little patience for is political correctness or the politics of racial polarization embraced by some in the black community.
In 2004, on the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby addressed three thousand of black America's elite at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Cosby called on black Americans to keep their self-help traditions alive. His speech challenged black Americans to take a hard look at poor parenting and the cultural rot preventing too many black children from throwing off the veil of ignorance covering them, including disproportionate fatherlessness, bad schools, high rates of unemployment, and lives wasted in jails. In his talk, Cosby was critical of African Americans who put their priorities on sports, fashion, and "acting hard," rather than on education, self-respect, and self-improvement. He pleaded for black families to educate their children in many different aspects of American culture.
Speaking of the generation of civil rights leaders, be declared:
. . . these people opened doors, they gave us the rights. But today. . . in our cities we have fifty percent dropout (rates among young black men) in our neighborhoods. We have (the highest percentage of any American racial group with) men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because (she is) pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father.
Cosby told his audience that the problems weighing down black America fifty years after the Brown decision, had nothing to do with white people or the racism of the past. "We can't blame white people," he said:
They've got to wonder what the hell happened. . . . These people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education and today we got these knuckleheads walking around who don't want to learn English. . . . These people are not funny any more, And that's not my brother. And that's not my sister. They're faking and they're dragging me down because the state, the city . . . have to pick up the tab because they don't want to accept that they have to study to get an education.
The immediate reaction to Cosby that night was a standing ovation. Later, he came under attack from some in the civil rights establishment. The respected black journalist Juan Williams noted that:
Cosby had broken with the civil rights establishment's orthodoxy of portraying blacks as victims. That was the reason no other modern black leader or personality had previously pointed out the obvious problems bedeviling black America. Cosby had broken the code of silence.
Three weeks after he ignited the debate, Cosby kept a commitment to appear at the annual convention of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Speaking to the Chicago activists, Cosby responded to criticism that he had betrayed the black community by exposing problems of the black poor to the world:
Let me tell you something. Your dirty laundry gets out of school at two thirty every day. It's cursing and calling each other nigger as they walk up and down the street. They think they're hip. They can't read; they can't write. They're laughing and giggling and they're going nowhere.
When he was pressed about taking the pressure off white people and continued racism, he got fiery. This is the time to "turn the mirror around," he said.
. . . Because for me it is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat, it keeps you frozen in the hole you are sitting in.
His words were greeted with thunderous applause.
Juan Williams writes that:
The essence of the negative behavior he was railing against was behavior that the NAACP, the black church, the Jesse Jackson activists, and the black intellectuals had long ago decided not to address. Not one civil rights group took up Cosby's call for marches and protests against drug dealers, pregnant teens, deadbeat dads, and hate-filled rap music that celebrates violence. The only saving grace was that he had built up such a deep reservoir of goodwill that the official black leadership still didn't launch a public attack. They simply ignored him.
In his book Enough, Williams writes:
Cosby recounted to this author a conversation among teenaged boys he visited in a classroom. The boys told him they did not expect to live beyond the age of twenty-eight - some of them said twenty-five. "If you don't expect to be alive beyond twenty-five, it is easy to do certain things, like make a lot of babies without worrying about taking care of them," said Cosby. "You don't care if you give AIDS to a woman. And the women don't care if they have baby after baby, because they don't believe they are going to raise those babies." And there is no shame, he added. When he grew up in Philadelphia, Cosby said, a man who got a woman pregnant without marrying her often left town or went in the military or to a reform school. Now it's acceptable behavior, celebrated in hip-hop's corrosive culture.
Bill Cosby is an American original. Now, approaching 76, he is touring the country with his show. It was a treat to see him on Father's Day.