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.