The Prevalence of Forces

You know, Philadelphia is a city that I’ve always believed has much in common with Detroit.  As the second largest city within the East Coast megalopolis, it shares a similar position as Detroit within its Midwest urban hierarchy.  Like the Motor City, Philly was the primary manufacturer of the megalopolis, and was hurt substantially as manufacturing declined.  It has a well-deserved legacy in popular music.  It was one of the first Northern cities to have a large and relatively prosperous black population.  Philly has had its share of tense racial situations, leaving it with a complicated racial legacy. 
I’ve been to Philly three times, but the most recent was eleven years ago.  I loved what I saw of Center City and the neighborhoods that surround it just to the north, south and west.  However, I saw lots of decimated areas that demonstrate Philly has lots in common with its Rust Belt cohorts.  It shares much with Detroit; in fact, in my opinion Detroit and Philadelphia would be virtual twins had there not been some critical differences in political leadership.  But that’s another story.
A recent article by Philadelphia Magazine by Robert Huber has drawn a lot of attention in recent weeks.  Called “Being White in Philly”, the author offers a platform for white Philly residents to sound off on their deepest thoughts on race relations in the City of Brotherly Love.  Much of it is quoted anonymously, and Huber notes that whites often feel as if they can’t contribute to the racial dialogue without fear of some retribution:

“Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.”

Here’s an example of the inner monologue made public:

“Most (primarily white) Fairmounters, of course, aren’t trying to push up into (primarily African-American) Brewerytown, and their concerns are a little more pedestrian. In early December, I go to a civic-association meeting. On the agenda: the upcoming house tour, the winter social, patio planter boxes to help lessen rainwater in the sewers, and the neighborhood scourge: parking! I talk with Eileen and Bruce, who’s the association’s head, in the cozy glass-enclosed back room of their rowhouse on 25th Street. They’re both retired Philadelphia schoolteachers; we discuss neighborhoods.
Brewerytown residents tend to stay above Girard, they tell me. “At Halloween,” Eileen says, “that’s the only time we see them. Lot of little kids from the other side of the tracks—African-American kids. People still give them candy.”
“People get upset,” Bruce says. “We used to have a parade on Sunday afternoon, kids would get nicely dressed up, and kids from up there”—he points north—“would come barely dressed up.”
Eileen says, “People say—”
“At least dress up,” Bruce says. “Unless they’re working here, most of them don’t come in this direction. They seem happy to stay in their little lot, as it were.”

On the whole, the article is underwhelming.  There’s nothing especially new here, from my perspective; generally, it’s “blacks make me feel… uneasy”.  I’ve heard many versions of that before.
Actually, if you want visceral opinions on race from whites, I suggest looking at the comments section for Detroit News articles on virtually anything related to Detroit’s current fiscal crisis, or the corruption trial of Kwame Kilpatrick.  Great examples can be found in today’s article about Jesse Jackson calling for “mass civil action” because of the appointment of an emergency financial manager.  Here are a few choice nuggets (link not working now):

“Jackson and (Detroit City Councilwoman Joanne) Watson; talk about Dumb and Dumber.”
“Jesse Jackson…Where were you when Detroit was being flushed down the toilet with violence, drug use, gangs, and corruption? Perhaps your help would have been more useful and a bit more relevant then. As I have said all along…if you want to protest this, you need to provide a viable solution other than ‘give us money and stay out of our business’.”
“They never blame any of their own for the problems they have created. It’s easier to point the finger at others. Until they realize in most cases they are their own worst enemies and work to change that nothing will improve for them. Meanwhile GO HOME Jackson nothing happening in Detroit is any of your business.”

Now that’s what I call deep-seated feelings on race.
But ultimately, whites saying “blacks make me feel… uneasy” or “they never blame any of their own” is not getting us anywhere, just as blacks saying “it’s all their fault” or “we can do this on our own” advances no causes. 
I’m a planner and blogger, not an expert on race relations.  But if there is to be any dialogue between blacks and whites that could help foster some greater understanding, I’d suggest looking at the differing cultural views of the prevalence of forces.  My really really big big picture generalization of different cultural perspectives:
·         Whites have a deeply-held belief that individuals shape circumstances and create opportunities, and those who believe otherwise are flawed.  Work hard, put yourself in a position to succeed and success will come to you.  Outside forces can come into play, but success comes through individual determination and focus.
·         Blacks have an intuitive if not completely articulated understanding that larger outside forces can wield greater impact on individual success than their own efforts.
It took some time for me to formulate this idea, but it seems it may some scholarly merit.  Garance Franke-Ruta of the Atlantic wrote a blog piece yesterday about a National Science Foundation-funded study that was published in journal Psychological Science earlier this year, called “In the Land of the Free, Interdependent Action Undermines Motivation”.  Essentially, Franke-Ruta wrote:
“(s)cholars MarYam G. Hamedani, Hazel Rose Marcus, and Alyssa S. Fu, posited that the European-American cultural context prizes independence more than, say, the Asian-American one, which also celebrates the value of interdependence. And it explored what sort of appeals were most motivating to individuals raised in these two different cultural contexts.
“[C]an American independence be a cultural and psychological barrier to motivating Americans to think and act interdependently?” the study authors asked. “And … if so, how can Americans be motivated to take action on pressing social issues that require interdependence?”
The important part:
“Lead author Hamedani, associate director at Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity at Stanford University, elaborated. “Appeals to interdependence might sound nice or like the right thing to do, but they will not get the job done for many Americans,” she said in a statement.
And what would an appeal to independence sounds like? A bit like Barack Obama, circa 2009, it turns out. Hamedani suggests “be the change YOU want to see in the world”  — which is, of course, not only a quote from Gandhi but a message that was part of Obama’s winning campaign in 2008, and the slogan for his first inauguration.”
What, you say, does this have to do with the revitalization of shrinking cities?  In a word, everything.  First, I’d agree that in a general sense African-Americans also prize interdependence (the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is often attributed to an African proverb; it’s also a phrase that grates people who believe otherwise).  Second, the dynamics of the last 60 years within America’s Northeastern and Midwestern cities is the epitome of decline due to outside forces that require interdependent action – racial segregation, integration and eventual resegregation; the collapse of manufacturing due to globalization; determining the appropriate size and function of government to provide the services we desire.
Ironically, if there’s a place where whites may be coming around to the notion of the prevalence of forces, it’s likely in small Midwestern cities.  Towns like Kokomo, Indiana and Dubuque, Iowa are all too familiar with the economic decisions that were made in the name of globalization.  Places like these once defined the American Dream; now they struggle to hold on.  Can they preach the need to seek interdependent solutions, as the impacts trickle upward to larger cities?
That bridge is the one that must be crossed if we’re going to see cooperation that leads to revitalization in shrinking cities.  That means whites recognizing that larger forces may have played a significant role in the fortunes of black city residents, and blacks recognizing that whites can be a willing partner in the revitalization of communities, rather than a destructive force.

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