Nutter and the Racial Shame of Flash Mobs

Violence in Center City brings on the Mayor's political bravery

Michael Nutter’s flash mob-inspired Cosby moment at the pulpit on Sunday was a fascinating political move for a mayor who—more than any before him—stands astride the wide chasm between white and black in Philadelphia.

Nutter spoke for about 30 minutes. He apologized, on behalf of the city, to Philadelphia’s law-abiding residents. He lectured irresponsible parents. He warned flash mobbers that they’d be locked up. But the money phrase—the one that warranted pull-quote treatment on the cover of the Daily News—was this: “Quite honestly, you’ve damaged your own race.”

Whatever you think of the remark—whether you consider it scapegoating or right on target—it was perhaps Nutter’s bravest political moment as Mayor. For one, Nutter’s standing among black voters is tenuous at best. He’s seen by many black voters, rightly or wrongly, as not one of them. For a mayor with that problem, to walk into Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, and castigate African-American parents—fathers in particular—for not taking responsibility for their children takes some serious guts.

Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall took the cynical view that the whole thing was a pander to white voters. “At that point, he wasn’t talking to black people anymore,” she wrote.

I don’t buy it. Maybe what Nutter did was counterproductive. Maybe he should have shown more empathy. Maybe he should have stayed out of the pulpit altogether and stuck to the nuts and bolts business of police patrols and curfews.

But Nutter meant what he said, and he didn’t say it to shore up white support. I mean let’s face it, he already has plenty of that.

No, Nutter actually believes this stuff. If you look at his career, and his public remarks over the years, it’s crystal clear he feels that Philadelphia’s black community is responsible for a lot of its own ills. It might not be ideal that he chose to air these thoughts so publicly in the aftermath of a series of attacks on white people in Center City, but it’s far from the first time Nutter has preached the gospel of black self-reliance.

“When we were younger, we didn’t need a law, we didn’t need a bill, we didn’t need a resolution, we didn’t need a government to tell us: ‘Come outside and sweep your steps, wash down your sidewalk, and make your neighborhoods clean,'” Nutter said in 2007, after winning the Democratic nomination for mayor.

“We didn’t need anybody to tell us that because we cared. About where we lived, and who we were and what we were about. We need to bring that back, a sense of community pride, a sense of ownership, a sense of caring about each other. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”

And as Monica Yant Kinney points out today, after a Greek Picnic in 1998 led to violence, Nutter said  “It’s not about what the white man did,” he said of those incidents. “It’s not about slavery or oppression. It’s about nothing. It’s about being ignorant and disrespectful.”

As he is fond of reminding people, Nutter grew up in a working-class black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. His parents had their share of problems (his father may have drank too much), but they nonetheless expected a lot from their children. Nutter obviously met those expectations, winning a scholarship to St. Joe’s Prep before going on to Penn. At times, Nutter seems to be thinking: If I could do it, why the hell can’t more of you?

Not being black, I don’t feel remotely qualified to say whether the Mayor’s occasional forays into this kind of territory help matters or not. It’s certainly easy to imagine such rhetoric backfiring, further alienating already pissed-off black teens.

But don’t for a second assume this is an act. Nutter means every word of it, and he always has.