By Tubman Brown
Philadelphia and the surrounding areas are well known for their poverty, drug addiction, and violence. It is hard to get a straight answer about why this is, and when the answer is given it’s often blatantly racist or racist just under the surface. One of the more common answers, especially among White Philadelphians, is that Black and Latin people are inclined towards crime and violence — whether or not they actually claim people of color are naturally or culturally inferior only depends on if they’re comfortable being an obvious racist or not.
Of course, this explanation is ridiculous. The various Black and Latino/indigenous cultures of Philadelphia are unique in their traditions, their music, their literature, and their history — they are not unique in their inclination towards crime and violence. White Irish and Italian neighborhoods in Philadelphia have always had their share of gang violence, and currently, there are majority White neighborhoods, most notably Kensington, that are notorious for drug addiction and drug trade. The Near Northeast and South Philadelphia also provide examples of White poverty easily comparable to the poverty of Black and Brown people throughout the city. Often it seems that the distinction made by White Philadelphians between the White poor and the Brown poor is based on their level of personal comfort instead of any social reality.
It is, however, true that Black and Brown people in Philadelphia are poor at a greater rate than White people in the city. Why is this? The basic answer is that racism has always been used as a tool by politicians and by bosses to divide the poor and working class people. The history of Philadelphia is a history of competition between bosses and workers, hidden by a staged conflict between races and ethnic groups for jobs and living space — both of which would be available to all peoples if not for the artificial scarcity created by bosses and politicians. Working class unity, across racial and ethnic lines, means that workers have leverage over their bosses, something a boss clearly does not want. To maintain control over their workers, an easy and successful strategy is for bosses to, first of all, hire mostly White people if possible. When required to hire Brown workers, they will treat White workers better (and as anyone who has worked for a living knows, a slight difference in the quality of employment goes a long way) so that White workers are loyal to their bosses and will side with the boss against their fellow Black and Brown workers. This produces a self-fulfilling prophecy in which Black and Brown workers will usually be poorer, and as a result are unwilling to put in as much work when they’re treated worse and are considered disposable.
In a country filled with mostly White workers, mostly White politicians, and mostly White bosses, and with a set of laws created to favor White businessmen, it is no mystery why bosses and politicians strategically choose to give White people preference over Black and Brown people. Another successful strategy to bait White people into betraying their class interests is the White police force, and this White police also goes a long way in explaining the larger amount of poverty present in Black and Brown communities.
When Whites were forced to compete both among themselves and against Black workers, they were offered a job not initially offered to people of color — that of the policeman, a new job that came around with the growth of cities in the mid-1800s. When many White immigrants, especially the Irish, took this job of the policeman, it gave their own ethnic community power to enforce their interests, a power that other communities did not have. It is often mentioned that the Irish were once discriminated against — this is true. It is also often claimed by racists that the Irish pulled themselves out of discrimination and that Black and Brown people could do the same if they really wanted to. This is simply wrong. The Irish were not discriminated against as White people — rather, they were discriminated against until they became White, and they became White by serving White interests. Also, this was clearly made easier through having a physical appearance compatible with Whiteness. But consider the Russians and Ukrainians who now have their distinct communities in Philadelphia. They may be light skinned and white by a wide definition, but there is certainly a distinction made between a White person and a person from Russia. And further, a Puerto Rican person with light skin is not considered White the moment their accent reveals them as Puerto Rican. These categories we have been placed into are not inevitable.
When many police were Irish, the Irish community was able to “lift themselves up” by choosing not to arrest other Irish, and choosing to arrest those Black and Brown people they believed were competition for their own people. When many able-bodied Black workers, the economic pillar of the Black community, were arrested for the same things able-bodied White workers were allowed to go free for, this created a situation in which the Irish were able to improve their economic situation through undermining Blacks.