Feature: The Problems of the Post-Racial Politician Operating in an Economic Downturn and Facing an Electorate Still Largely Segregated Along Lines of Class and Skin Color

Or, why black folks don’t like Michael Nutter

ON SEPTEMBER 24TH, at the end of a week when John Street told anyone who would listen that Michael Nutter was an Oreo, the Mayor showed up late to a party in East Oak Lane. 

It was a handsome block filled with upper-middle-class African-American professionals. A high-school principal. An attorney. A police captain. And Doug Oliver, Mayor Nutter’s former spokesman. Before he quit the mayor’s office, Oliver used the block as a sort of unfiltered connection to the city’s black leadership class. He’d run into a neighbor and start chatting, and hours later half the block would be in a backyard, frying turkeys and talking politics.

Some of the neighbors didn’t care for Nutter at all. “Starch and cold” is the way Renel Sample, who lives a few doors down from Oliver, always perceived the Mayor. Sample had never met Nutter, but he thought that on TV and in the papers, the Mayor came across like a “stuffed shirt” incapable of smiling.

The night of the party was unseasonably hot and humid. But there was plenty of booze, the music was good, and Sample had made some sublime food: grilled lamb and steak, jambalaya and bluefish. To Oliver’s relief, the guests — a mix of City Hall technocrats and East Oak Lane neighbors — were getting along famously.
Then the Mayor showed up. It is hard to imagine anyone hinting that the Michael Nutter at that party was somehow not black enough, or was uncomfortable in his own skin, “starch” or a “stuffed shirt.” He arrived, loosened his tie, took off his jacket and said, to the amazement of Oliver’s neighbors, “We about to have a good time in here.”

Hours later, around 1 a.m., Nutter asked for everyone’s attention. He said a few nice things about Oliver, who was leaving for a better-paying job at PGW. Then Nutter called up a song on his iPod. It was a tune from Philadelphia soul artist Billy Paul, “Am I Black Enough For You?,” released in 1972, right after Paul’s signature crossover hit “Me and Mrs. Jones.” It goes, in part:

I got to stay black
Black enough for you
I got to stay black
Black enough for you
Am I black
Black enough for you?

The song was Nutter’s riposte to his old nemesis, Street. Days before, the former mayor had walked into the editorial-board offices of the Daily News and Inquirer and said, without prompting, that many African-Americans don’t see Nutter as a black mayor. Rather, they see “just a mayor with dark skin.”