Mayor Jim Kenney Doesn’t Care About Black People

More than 10 people, mostly Black, are being shot in Philly every day this month. The Mayor's refusal to declare our city's gun violence crisis a state of emergency shows you exactly where he stands on race.

City Council wants Mayor Kenney to declare a gun violence emergency. The Mayor says that is not the solution. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

In 2005, during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, rapper Kanye West declared on national television that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

It was a brutal yet sobering remark, one born of the frustration of seeing thousands of suffering Black families met with an inadequate relief response from a sitting U.S. president. History would eventually characterize Bush’s lackluster performance regarding the victims of Hurricane Katrina as the beginning of his undoing in the public eye. Bush, years later, would confess that West’s controversial statement was the “low point” of his presidency — and not many would disagree.

When I think about Philadelphia’s current gun violence crisis — thus far in July, more than 10 people, most of them Black, are being killed or wounded by bullets daily — it’s hard not to deem Mayor Jim Kenney’s response anything less than a failure. Sure, there have been announcements that the city will be throwing more money at the problem, but a definitive declaration of the severity of the situation is missing. On Monday, Philadelphians learned that Kenney definitely isn’t going to declare a state of emergency over gun violence, despite a resolution to do so that was adopted by City Council and despite New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently declaring such an emergency to address rising violence in that city.

In a nutshell, Kenney feels that declaring a state of emergency over this deadly crisis “is not a solution that will demonstrably change conditions in Philadelphia.”

“Local government leaders across America are doing everything we can within our powers to bring resources, coordination and attention to the epidemic of gun violence that continues to spread like a disease across our nation,” Kenney wrote to Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who introduced the resolution. “Together we must all keep working on solutions to invest in and heal communities hurt by gun violence and resist the temptation to issue statements that will not have the desired impact. I look forward to your continued partnership on this front.”

So a gun violence epidemic that’s maiming more than 10 of your citizens daily isn’t an emergency? One that’s disproportionately impacting Black people, especially Black women, in underserved neighborhoods? One that has now put us second in the country only to Chicago in total homicides this year?

It’s hard for me not to take this lapse in judgment personally, as a Black man who lives in Gauthier’s district in West Philly — an area that has experienced rampant gun violence this year. Kenney has continued to drop the ball, proving he doesn’t have the cultural competence to lead a majority Black and brown city. We should have already known this when he failed to protect innocent Black Lives Matter protesters from having their human rights violated via tear gas last summer, but here we are again. If we’re already doing all the things that would happen in a state of emergency, as Kenney claims, why not just declare one? It’s obvious that doing so would mean something to the community being affected.

I guess the answer to this is obvious: Mayor Jim Kenney doesn’t care about Black people.

Yes, his decision not to declare a state of emergency about a gun violence crisis that’s killing mostly Black people is racist. Institutional racism isn’t about intentionality, but impact. A white person can commit an act of racism without being verbally blatant about it: Think cultural appropriation, gentrification, or allowing a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in a workspace. Kenney is perpetuating institutional racism, because his decision will continue to signal that the slaughter that largely impacts Black residents doesn’t require our utmost response.

A state of emergency would mandate more city resources, enforce intergovernmental coordination, and apply a sense of urgency to combating the problem. Such an emergency declaration would make the issue a top priority for every city agency and allow officials to more quickly target resources in the hardest-hit areas, such as North and West Philly, that need them immediately. Compare this to how Kenney dealt with the opioid overdose crisis in 2018, when he declared a disaster in Kensington. It should also be noted that Kenney’s response came around the same time that data listed white men as the major victims of reported opioid overdoses in the city.

Black trauma has always been treated as a third-world concern in a city that’s seen racially disproportionate rates of opportunity, equity and access for Black people. If white people were being killed by gun violence at these staggering rates, I wouldn’t be writing this column. When white people speak out, they get immediate response (e.g., it took white people complaining about asbestos in our public schools before something got done). We’re living in a city where the free speech of white supremacists is better protected by our police than that of those on the front lines against racism. Leadership starts at the top, and it’s become clear that Kenney’s institutional racism is reinforcing a horrible standard that Black people are second-class citizens in Philadelphia.

In a statement, Gauthier said that Kenney’s refusal to declare a state of emergency was “an abdication of responsibility” and “a reflection of just how disconnected the Mayor and his administration is from the actual reality that people in our communities are living through every day.”

I agree, but I also think it’s time for others to step up and call on the Mayor to reconsider or step down. The blood will continue to be on his hands until he changes course.