Off the Cuff: February 2012

I keep thinking about a blog post that one of our writers here at Philadelphia magazine recently put up. Victor Fiorillo was riding the trolley home through West Philadelphia. A woman sitting near him began yelling at her two young children, a boy and a girl. The girl, probably two, kept sliding down in her seat, which enraged the mother. She started hitting and then smacking her daughter, trying to get her to stop. Her son, who was probably four, said something, and the mother gave him a series of rapid-fire punches.

No one on the trolley—perhaps 20 others—said anything. Except for Victor. “If you hit that child one more time,” he told the woman loudly, “I will call the police and follow you home and make sure they arrest you.”

The mother sprang up and spat in Victor’s face. Then she gathered her children and got off the trolley. The woman, who was black, left with the comment, “That’s the problem with all you fucking white people.”

I don’t know what I would have done in that situation; perhaps, like almost everyone else, I would have remained silent. And that, I believe, is really the problem with all of us, in the face of an inner city that is mostly a dysfunctional mess. We are doing nothing. In fact, we aren’t even willing to talk honestly about what’s wrong; we’re too afraid. We’re afraid of getting the responses that Victor received online to his post, accusing him of butting into somebody else’s business and even of being a racist. How, I wonder, is having the courage to speak up when children are being abused anything but the proper response?

Our fear has us avoiding even a discussion of the real problems. Recently, Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times about two decades’ worth of studies telling us that how children are treated when they are very young has a telling effect on their brains. If they’re loved and protected, their minds develop in a very different way than if they’re ignored or abused—or beaten. As one doctor said, “Early experiences are literally built into our bodies.”

It’s pretty easy to connect the dots, though Kristof, with strong liberal credentials, certainly didn’t. The children that Victor saw on the trolley are going to have miserable lives. They will do poorly at school. They will abuse drugs and commit violent crimes. They will become part of a culture that has Philadelphia at or near the top in several categories nationally: in murder, in poverty, in hunger, in illiteracy.

Is it a mistake to say that? Should I worry that some readers might see me as racist for describing what I fear for those children, who happen to be black? Perhaps I should be like Mayor Nutter, who defined the big initiatives of his second term as fighting crime and improving education in this city. Do you really believe, Mr. Mayor, that you can make a dent in solving those problems without looking at something much more fundamental? It is patently clear that the inner-city family is broken, with abusive mothers, absent fathers, drug abuse and criminal behavior rampant. The Mayor occasionally recognizes this fact in outbursts of anger, but unless we keep shining a light on the crux of the crisis, nothing gets solved.

I realize, of course, that I am on dangerous ground here. But when it is overwhelmingly likely that the two young children Victor saw on the trolley will end up with damaged lives, I don’t think we have a choice. Moreover, ignoring a mother beating her children on the trolley is a microcosm of our larger failure.

We’ve been throwing money at the problems of our urban poor for more than half a century, with terrible results. Facing the truth about inner-city life instead of dancing around it would be a start in a much better direction.

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  • Margret

    I urge you, Mr. Lipson, to illustrate what facing the truth about inner-city life looks like on a grand scale, and not just for one man on a trolley.

  • Sheth

    Yet another patronizing piece by Mr. Lipson in which he makes it clear that one race is immoral and in need of correction by members of his own race. For the umpteenth time Mr. Lipson incorrectly proclaims that he and a few other brave white people are the only ones telling the “truth” about the inner city. Of course, I’m willing to bet he doesn’t actually talk to (as opposed to talking at) any blacks so I’m not so sure how he can say definitively that blacks don’t discuss or confront the issues facing black neighborhoods in an honest manner. Most people of Lipson’s ilk do little to actually change anything, they just restate the problem over and over again and then uplift themselves as brave truth tellers. A sign that Lipson is out of touch with reality is the fact that he claims Mayor Nutter tiptoes around parental responsibility amongst blacks. That is totally inconsistent with the many public statements Nutter (as well as his Police Commissiner) have made over the past few years. The problem with having total disregard for people based on race is that you don’t even bother to listen to the people of that race…

  • Sheth

    Yet another patronizing piece by Mr. Lipson in which he makes it clear that one race is immoral and in need of correction by members of his own race. For the umpteenth time Mr. Lipson incorrectly proclaims that he and a few other brave white people are the only ones telling the “truth” about the inner city. Of course, I’m willing to bet he doesn’t actually talk to (as opposed to talking at) any blacks so I’m not so sure how he can say definitively that blacks don’t discuss or confront the issues facing black neighborhoods in an honest manner. Most people of Lipson’s ilk do little to actually change anything, they just restate the problem over and over again and then uplift themselves as brave truth tellers. A sign that Lipson is out of touch with reality is the fact that he claims Mayor Nutter tiptoes around parental responsibility amongst blacks. That is totally inconsistent with the many public statements Nutter (as well as his Police Commissiner) have made over the past few years. The problem with having total disregard for people based on race is that you don’t even bother to listen to the people of that race…

  • Erika

    Remove the racial aspect from this story and see what happens. Your piece would have been just as effective. But since you’re convinced that Whites are smart and Blacks are not, you won’t try to see the situation in this way. This piece is equivalent to the woman spitting in the man’s face and making that comment. You’re just as ignorant.

  • Erika

    Remove the racial aspect from this story and see what happens. Your piece would have been just as effective. But since you’re convinced that Whites are smart and Blacks are not, you won’t try to see the situation in this way. This piece is equivalent to the woman spitting in the man’s face and making that comment. You’re just as ignorant.

  • holly

    No where in this article does it mention the race of anyone on the trolley except the abusive mother. So why is everyone jumping on the author. Wasn’t the mother’s remark to the gentleman that spoke up just as racist? The author points out that 19 others sat in silence and watched as the children were subject to verbal and phyical abuse. The cycle of unwedded mothers, absent fathers, drug abuse, and lack of decent parenting skills is rampant in the inner city, but it is trickling out into the suburbs. Every decent human being BLACK or WHITE has an obligation to make an efort to stop the decline. It is not okay under any circumstance to stand by and watch a child mistreated, especially now that so much proof has been found that tells us that this is the start of a downward spiral for those youngsters.