Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Racial politics not new for Philadelphia, or elsewhere

Racial politics is as American as cherry pie; going all the way back to 1787, when delegates to the Constitutional Convention decided slaves should each be counted as three-fifths of a person in apportioning representatives to Congress. More than two and a quarter centuries later, and with African Americans generally allotted votes on the same basis as whites, race remains an important factor in determining who wins certain elections. That is particularly so in Philadelphia and other cities where black voters who support white candidates can expect to have their loyalties questioned.

That was the case this week after a Northwest Philadelphia coalition of black politicians, including State Reps. Dwight Evans, Cherelle L. Parker, and Stephen Kinsey, and City Council members Marian B. Tasco and Cindy Bass endorsed former Councilman James F. Kenney for mayor. The Democrats' announcement was labeled "a mistake" by former Councilman George Burrell, who has ties to a separate coalition led by former Mayor John Street. Burrell supports State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who is black, for mayor.

Burrell accused Evans' group of undoing the work of the late Congressman William H. Gray III and State Rep. David P. Richardson Jr., whom he said, "fought to create a place at the table of political power for the African American community." Gray and Richardson were dedicated to getting black politicians elected to offices that had been off limits due to their race. But Philadelphia has elected three black mayors since 1984, and many city residents today, black and white, are more concerned with a candidate's ability to do the job than that person's race or gender. How many feel that way is the question.

Ed Rendell was elected mayor in 1991 with just enough black votes in the Democratic primary to prevail over Burrell and black Councilman Lucien Blackwell, who got most of the black votes. Race was not as significant a factor when Rendell sought reelection in 1995, but many Philadelphians believe Street would not have won his reelection bid in 2003 if an FBI investigation of City Hall corruption had not been successfully portrayed by Street supporters as being racially motivated, which energized black voters. Street went on to beat white Republican candidate Sam Katz by 17 points after having eked out a two-point victory against Katz in 1999.

The election of Michael Nutter, who captured up to 25 percent of the white vote in the 2007 Democratic primary, the highest percentage ever by a black politician in Philadelphia, suggests that racial politics doesn't have to prevail. Nor was race a factor in the general election that year, or when Nutter faced meager opposition in his 2011 reelection bid. This year's mayoral race, however, could be a seminal election for Philadelphia; one that hinges on whether black voters believe a white politician – whether it's Kenney or someone else – can adequately represent their interests at City Hall. To get to that point, voters must get past a history of racial politics that is traceable to this nation's birth and evident in other cities across America.

Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer.