In homes that are even the least bit conscious about America’s long history of racial bias, one of many lessons Black parents teach their children is this one: You have to be twice as good to get half as much.
That key verse from what I like to call “The Big Book of Black Home Trainin’” came to mind as I watched twin controversies grip the city over the last few weeks. One scandal involved the Black female police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, who along with the mayor and other city leaders botched the violent and haphazard response to the George Floyd protests that unfolded in Philadelphia last spring. The other involved Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, a white man whose department is the lead agency responsible for bungling a partnership with an unqualified company that was allowed to vaccinate thousands of Philadelphians against a deadly virus until the city severed that partnership.
In the wake of a scathing city controller’s report that rightly called out city leadership for using tear gas against antiracism protesters, many entities, including the Inquirer editorial board, called for Outlaw to resign. But after Farley’s Public Health Department oversaw the disastrous deal that gave thousands of doses of vaccine to Philly Fighting COVID, a white company whose leaders do not have advanced health degrees, Farley was not called upon to resign. Instead, his acting deputy, a doctor named Caroline Johnson, stepped down for sending emails that gave inside information to Andrei Doroshin of Philly Fighting COVID, including advice on how much to bid for a city contract.
Why was Johnson forced to fall on her sword instead of Farley? It couldn’t be because she made the decision to partner with Philly Fighting COVID. She couldn’t be responsible for the ultimate call, because she wasn’t in charge. But when I consider the optics of a white male departmental leader being allowed to keep his job while a woman takes the fall, as meanwhile others call to replace a Black woman top cop following a single critical report, the time-honored phrase that’s been passed down through generations of Black people comes to mind.
We have to be twice as good to get half as much.
There are those who say Outlaw’s transgressions are more serious than Farley’s, because the heavy-handed police response to citizens who were exercising their First Amendment rights could have been deadly. Perhaps, but what’s more deadly than a virus that’s killed more than 444,000 Americans? What’s more reckless than allowing an unqualified company to distribute the vaccine? What’s more incompetent than failing to properly vet that company when you put the lives of our most vulnerable citizens in their hands?
To be sure, both Farley and Outlaw must answer for their mistakes, but if Farley is allowed to stumble while dealing with an unprecedented crisis and have time to get his footing, Outlaw should be afforded that same opportunity. If she makes the same mistakes again, we should talk about serious consequences, and the same goes for Farley. Which brings me to Mayor Jim Kenney.
He is ultimately responsible for what happens in this city. As the leader, he should be credited when things go well and he must shoulder the blame when they don’t. That’s the nature of the job, and Mayor Kenney has been around long enough to know that.
However, there is one more thing the mayor must do when his subordinates make mistakes in difficult circumstances. He must support them through their stumbles, steer them in the right direction, and allow them the room they need to get it right, regardless of their race or gender. Kenney has done that for both Outlaw and Farley, and time will tell if he was right to do so.
And while I’m still uncomfortable with Dr. Johnson, rather than her boss, taking the fall for the Philly Fighting COVID debacle, I am glad to see that Kenney gave his health and police commissioners an equal opportunity to fail.
Now, as we move forward through unprecedented times, the rest of us should follow that example — and give them both an equal chance to succeed.