Off the Cuff: May 2010

None of us should have been surprised by the so-called “flash mob" attacks in Philadelphia recently. We all tend to have short memories, but this sort of thing has been going on in the city for 45 years, and I’ve been through it all.

The reaction is usually the same: The public is outraged, and the editorialists repeat the same hand-wringing blather about the plight of the inner city over and over again. No one is willing to examine the underlying causes of all of this—at least, not in public. There is almost universal silence from those who should be speaking up.

What we all understand, because it’s become so obvious, is that no one is raising our inner-city children. Consider this: The Inquirer recently profiled a young woman who was punched on South Street on a Saturday night in March for no reason whatsoever. The punch knocked out a front tooth and its root, and split her upper lip so badly that much of it was hanging from her face. The youth who hit her was laughing, the woman said, telling her, “Bam, there’s another one.” All in a night’s fun — he hasn’t been caught.

A letter to the editor of the Inquirer from John Featherman, a committeeman in Chinatown, nailed what is wrong with the lack of outrage:

Despite having a black mayor, black district attorney, black police chief, and predominantly black clergy, the African-American community in Philadelphia has failed at holding each other to a higher standard of conduct.

Curfews, undercover cops in classrooms, and scolding judges are not cures. They are Band-Aids. The solution can come only when there is a galvanized effort within the African-American community. Unfortunately, when Bill Cosby gave his controversial speech, “We Cannot Blame the White People Any Longer,” he was ostracized by mainstream African-American groups. His peaceful message was for African-Americans to proactively take back their neighborhoods.

Others should follow Mr. Featherman’s gutsy lead. Instead, we get city officials like Curry Bailey, the school district’s safety coordinator, who told the Inquirer that holding parents accountable is certainly not the way to go: “Now you’re going to have parents being defensive and obstinate. These parents are beaten enough by life. We don’t need to beat them up more.”

The sad irony here is that worrying about being sensitive to the inner city helps no one. If we talk around the problem out of fear, we can offer no assistance, either in stopping the flash mobs or to the inner city itself. The bottom line, it seems to me, is obvious common sense: Changing behavior of our youths starts where it always must—at home.

It was 45 years ago — in 1965 — that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would later serve four terms in the U.S. Senate, presented a report from the Department of Labor on the plight of inner-city blacks. The report concluded with an analysis that was roundly criticized. Family life in the black community, Moynihan wrote, constituted a “tangle of pathology … capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world. … At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.”

Moynihan was labeled a racist by some for that prescient analysis — perhaps he was ahead of his time. But here we are, a half-century later, still afraid to have an honest discussion about the city’s problems. Which is why I fear we’re headed for a long, hot, violent summer in Philadelphia.