Is Philadelphia Going Black?

The new separatist movement has made a lot of people jumpy.

I hurry along with the rest of the crowd, leaving the Muslim and the women behind, and move to the center of the courtyard. But I keep glancing up to the second floor; to the dark window where I imagine Mayor Frank Rizzo in his waning hours is smiling that grim, manic smile of his; and reading the mind of every person in this filthy stinking courtyard. Is he taking his own ghastly satisfaction from the fact that so many more of us are finally, regretfully, recognizing the “wisdom” of his way; the wisdom of viewing practically everything that happens in Philadelphia from a strictly racial standpoint?

If this is Rizzo’s revenge—his legacy—then his retaliation is complete. We spurned him and his politics of racial antagonism and now I’m walking through his courtyard, and in the space of five minutes I’ve seen a black crowd on the verge of lynching a white man; a Black Muslim who should feel like an alien because of his politics and his dress, but who is actually much more at home in the courtyard than I am; and the remnants of the MOVE tribe, preaching revolution and sedition and befouling the air with obscenity and intimidation.

The fear—the mortal terror, in fact—of white Philadelphians is that their city, not just isolated neighborhoods or commercial strips, but their entire city with its quality of life, its tradition and institutions, and its government and power structure, is on the verge of turning black—and turning black, not just in numbers, but in tangibles, as well.

That fear is not without statistical and demographic evidence. By 1980, according to the census people and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, the non-white population in Philadelphia proper will increase to 45.3% or 805,800 souls. This is up from 34.2% in 1970 and only 26% in 1960. The metropolitan area, suburbs included, will rise from 18% in 1970 to 21.6% in 1980—well over one million blacks.

At the same time, the entire population of the city has been shrinking—from 2 million in 1960 to 1.9 million in 1970 to a projected 1.7 million in 1980.

The significant fact, of course, is that the white population is dwindling while the blacks have increased by almost 140,000 in just one decade. This means, according to the projections, that by next year Philadelphia will have less than 1 million white inhabitants (about 974,000) for the first time since race has been a significant demographic factor.

Even that “non-white” figure of 45.3% may be far too conservative.

Single black males have been seriously undercounted and underreported on the census because they just don’t bother to respond. This undercount is possibly as high as 100,000 in the case of Philadelphia, according to John Mitkus, the executive director of the City Planning Commission.

And federal agencies have a habit of counting Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, etc. as white.

The whole question of Philadelphia’s Hispanic population is a bone of widespread contention. The hotly contested U.S. Census update in 1975 counted only 44,000 Spanish-speaking Philadelphians. Critics laugh at this figure. According to the Latino Project, an organization for Latin rights, the real figure is two to four times higher than that.

They estimate that by 1980 there will be well over 150,000 individuals of Hispanic descent living in the city. Add to this the city’s mushrooming Asian population, from incoming boat people to Korean fruit vendors, and you end up with a city in which whites would have to begin reproducing like rabbits—not like their present near zero-growth population rate—just to cling to a 50% head count. Actually, this option is easier said than done, because the statistics also reveal that Philadelphia’s whites are much more likely to be older than the blacks and well past the peak childbearing years.

This forecast of an older, white population receding before a young, vital black generation is affected slightly by the droves of white professionals who have been pouring back into neighborhoods like Fairmount, Old City and Society Hill. Demographers caution that these new city dwellers, these pioneers of urban recycling, are frequently childless couples. In many cases, they are rootless and mobile, with little or no commitment to the neighborhoods they are renovating. They have enough money and enough lack of affinity with their surroundings to move away any time they care to.

While city planners and chamber of commerce-type PR men shamelessly seduce this returning white wave, the more conservative professional statisticians are still unconvinced of their long-term impact. But, as far as Philadelphia is concerned, blacks aren’t leaving the city—they’re just being recycled from one part of town to another. Their penetration of the suburbs, though substantial in places like Yeadon, Upper Darby, Lansdowne and even parts of Abington, is still not extensive.

The quality of life in the city is changing fundamentally, as well. The School District of Philadelphia, for example, has practically no chance of voluntarily integrating itself because its white student enrollment stands at only 31%.

The city’s personnel roster has also shifted in keeping with the population trend. Frank Rizzo has never been confused with an integrationist; yet, during his eight years, according to City Solicitor Sheldon Albert, City Hall’s work force has risen from just about 30% black to over 48% black.

The uniformed services have been affected, too. The police force went from 16% to 21% black; and under Joe Rizzo, the mayor’s brother, black firemen have increased from 2% to 11%.

It would be hard to sell anyone on the proposition that this represents a Rizzo commitment to equal employment opportunity. Rather, it’s simply the reflection of a city and a city government that is slowly, but surely, turning at least half-black in spite of itself and its leaders’ inclinations. The population is still shifting and not even Rizzo can stop that.

What of the blacks who are making Philadelphia their own? One indication certainly seems to show that they are well on their way to solid middle-class status. As of 1975, there were 369,000 home owners in the city. Over 100,000 of them were black—that’s black property holders who do pay taxes; who do worry about declining real estate values and who do pray nightly that public housing projects won’t be erected next door to them.

This huge black middle class, incidentally, happens to be the most complex piece in the puzzle of Philadelphia’s race relations. No one, it seems, really understands this group; appreciates its actual size; represents its opinions either politically or in the press or reflects its bread-and-butter concerns—which mirror the concerns of white Philadelphians—from crime in the street to a moribund school system.

In the meantime, this large, committed and influential minority is establishing the sort of social and economic beachheads that so many white ethnic clans before them did. And they aren’t doing badly.

The federal government has been especially open in its ready access to upward mobility of blacks. Locally, the U.S. Mint, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the newly created Energy Department are all headed by blacks. Judge Leon Higginbotham is on the federal bench in the U.S. Court of Appeals and is generally considered one of Philadelphia’s premier jurists.

On the state level, blacks have held key cabinet-class jobs for years. In fact, the position of secretary of the Commonwealth is becoming a traditionally black post as the elevation of Ethel Allen after C. DeLores Tucker seems to indicate. On the state bench, Supreme Court Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr. is in line to head that august body in the not too distant future—seniority all but guarantees it for him.

In City Hall, black Philadelphians sit on the bench, preside over the Controller’s Office, sit on the boards of city agencies, man the Health Department, and play vital roles in just about every other aspect of the city’s services.

In the private sector the story is the same. More and more educators, bankers, surgeons, business executives, reporters and union leaders are black, well-to-do, and getting more fed up with the large, cosmopolitan city that refuses to recognize their prejudices, their prerogatives and their right to the pursuit of the capitalist buck.

On the down side, black unemployment far exceeds white, especially among young people; and blacks constitute about three-quarters of all the people in the city who depend upon social welfare or employment services. Blacks are also the principal victims of the high rate of black crime in Philadelphia. According to City Solicitor Sheldon Albert, 80% of the perpetrators of major crimes here are black. And so are 79% of the victims.

What all this means is that the city’s racial makeup will gradually stabilize after 1980. Blacks aren’t leaving the South anymore. In fact, many of them are returning to the Sun Belt. The city will probably settle into an uneasy, strained, 50-50 racial standoff with either group being numerically capable of gaining political superiority. That sort of stress makes for the kind of tension that breeds the summer of discontent the city of Philadelphia has just gone through.

1 2 3 4 5 < Previous Next >View as One Page