Racism, then and now
In the mid-1960s, we were all safely but fearfully ensconced in our respective racial ghettos. We White people eyed our Black sisters and brothers with fear, misunderstanding, and – although 98 percent of the families in my Port Richmond neighborhood attended Catholic school and attended Mass each Sunday – a profound lack of charity.
In a cruel time when we labeled our fellow Christians with unwelcome and uncharitable ethnic, racial, sexual, gender, and personal slurs that sometimes inflicted scars on our psyches, an older boy we named “Fat Genie” strode up and down our street carrying a tire iron and announcing that “n—s” were moving in around the corner on Aramingo Avenue. He put out a clarion call to the other boys and men in the neighborhood to march around the corner and show these brazen interlopers who was boss.
I stood on the front porch with my mother and next-door neighbor. Fear and hate reverberated on a street where we children usually passed the time riding our bikes, roller-skating or playing jump rope. I had seen the Ed Sullivan Show interrupted on Sunday night with pictures of white cops spraying peaceful and well-dressed Black people with fire hoses as they tried to cross a bridge in Alabama. And now Fat Genie was going to lead a posse of my friends and their fathers to beat up a family who had the nerve to disturb our comfortable vision of white superiority, right in my beloved neighborhood.
My neighbor, a small elderly woman named Marie, stood on the edge of her porch, shook her fist, and told Fat Genie to mind his own business, take his tire iron, and go home. Her quavering voice, raised above his strong young one, stopped Genie in his tracks. The raised arm with the iron dropped, and he actually slunk back across the street.
I never learned whether an African American family did, indeed, try to move into our White, ethnic neighborhood. I do know that two Black kids, a boy named Stanley and a girl named Ruby, attended our Catholic school for a short time. Ruby and Stanley lived in an area that was called “Jew Town,” which comprised a few blocks on the other side of the railroad tracks on Trenton Avenue. In an earlier time, Jewish people, merchants whose stores lined the once-vibrant shopping area at Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, or K & A, lived there because they could not live among the ethnic Catholics who lived farther east. When houses were built in the Northeast, the merchants moved away, opening the area to people even less desirable to the White Catholics than the Jews were.
Stanley and Ruby were not in my class, but I do recall talking about them with my friends as if they were aliens from the then-popular TV show, Lost in Space. The community’s racial ignorance was not without consequence for Stanley and Ruby, who only lasted a short time in our school, or for those of us who rested secure and superior in our working-class whiteness.
Although we faithfully attended Mass each Friday and Sunday, I never recall one homily condemning racism. Indeed, I had heard stories of pastors in what became known as “changing” – in other words, racially transitioning – neighborhoods who bought up homes and sold them privately to prevent Black people from moving into their White parishes. This was true in other cities as well, according to John T. McGreevy’s 1996 book, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North.
McGreevy wrote that Catholics of European ancestry once comprised 20 percent to 70 percent of many Northern and Eastern cities. These Catholics moved out of the cities en masse after Black people in the 1960s began leaving White-enforced ghettos. Suburban Philadelphia, for instance, doubled in population in the last third of the 20th century, to the point that suburban Catholics now outnumber city Catholics, giving the Archdiocese of Philadelphia a distinctive White, suburban flavor.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and other archdioceses followed the people to the suburbs, building spanking new, largely White parishes and schools. This policy not only contributed to the current state of racial isolation in many major cities, but also caused the deterioration of urban churches and schools that served the poor. Catholics, of course, were not the only people of faith making this journey to White suburbia.
In spite of the mass exodus of White people from the city to largely White suburbs, most of our children and grandchildren are not, thankfully, part of the overtly racist society in which I grew up. My own grandchildren never mention the race or ethnicity of their fellow students. I don’t think that they even notice it. For this, we can give thanks. The sad reality is, however, that their neighborhoods and schools are almost as racially isolated as mine was 50 years ago.
Unlike 20th-century America, which fostered and accepted racial segregation as a desirable practice, 21st-century America operates under the illusion that it is a color-blind society, one in which everyone has equal opportunity to live and work and attend school anywhere they want. This is because of the buzz word “choice,” a gift bestowed upon us by the omnipresent markets that cater to another modern invention, “taste.” Choice coupled with taste, rather than overt prejudice, then, determines our place of residence and where we send our children to school. With this belief firmly attached to our psyches, we absolve ourselves of any hint that we might be just as racist as our forebears.
In reality, choice is a code word for the modern expression of racism. The language of choice makes covert racism smell better and covers up the willful blindness of what the Rev. Martin Luther King called the “sincerely ignorant” White Americans who live in their overwhelmingly White neighborhoods convinced that society is now color blind.
The message underlying choice is this: No, we are not prejudiced against people of color, we just choose not to live near African Americans. We choose not to send our kids to school with African American children. We like to be with our own kind, just like our parents and grandparents who fled the city a generation or two before us. But we are not like them in that we believe people should have a choice where they live. We are just making a choice that best fits the needs of our families.
I recall a friend telling me years ago that she would really, really like to live where we lived, in integrated East Mount Airy, that she even considered doing it. But no, she opted instead for a brand new house in a nice White suburban development where her kids would attend a largely White school. I think she expected me to congratulate her just for entertaining the idea.
New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones often writes about the consequences of school segregation. In no case, she said in a recent NPR interview, do Black schools receive the same sort of educational resources that largely White schools and White suburban districts receive. Hannah-Jones also regards the No Child Left Behind law, with its demands to highlight achievement disparities based on race and do something about it, as an apologia for the de facto segregation that we see affecting most U.S. school districts. Segregation, however caused and perpetuated, is as injurious to Black children now as it was in the days before Brown v. Board of Education because of the continued inequitable allocation of resources.
Very few Americans choose to recognize the current segregation of U.S. public schools. Instead, some educators and politicians alike promote the thinking behind NCLB instead of fighting for integration and equal funding. The premise behind NCLB, which was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, was that teacher accountability – without any increase in resources or any effort to desegregate schools – will magically improve the educational gap between Black and White children. Neoliberal Democrats and Republicans support the notion that parental choice supported by vouchers and charter schools will do the same thing. Teachers can then be blamed for what is essentially an institutionally supported racist practice of underfunding Black schools.
All the bluster about "no excuses" for educational failure covers up the fact that largely White statehouses have starved urban schools of resources. In Pennsylvania, the state legislators justify their penury by claiming that money doesn’t fix things, even though money fixes most other things that were broken by neglect, misuse, or age. They have labeled Philadelphia’s schools, and by extension, Philadelphia’s children, as "cesspools.” The School Reform Commission used to call these same largely Black and Latino children "low-performing seats."
And so, in the latter part of the second decade of the 21st century, many of us Americans remain safely ensconced in our respective racial ghettos. Although not exactly fearful, and open to a certain extent, at most there has been some tinkering around the edges of these ghettos. Many neighborhoods have some Black residents who are warmly accepted as neighbors and schoolmates, the days of angry White boys with tire irons are gone, and calls to overt violence are rarely heard. The vast majority of us would never even think of using the cruel racist language our grandparents might have used.
However, the moral injury inflicted upon us by slavery, Jim Crow practices, and segregation still besets us, as much as we might protest otherwise. We White people continue to eye our Black sisters and brothers with some misgiving, lest our neighborhood or our school become “too Black” and lose value. Then we assess all our choices, pack up our bags, and move to a whiter pasture that better fits our taste. It is, after all, our choice.
Eileen DiFranco is a pastor, a writer, and a retired Philadelphia school nurse.