Post-racial urban politics: hardly

We have called for and expected the end of mainstream institutional racism in the United States since about the third day after it was exported to this country, maybe 400 years ago.

Back in 1999, when white Republican Sam Katz was challenging black Democrat John F. Street, Katz’s surging success in a city that had nearly as large a black population as white seemed to embolden that notion. Indeed, Katz seemed to make inroads in black communities that hadn’t voted more for a Republican than a Democratic mayoral candidate since 1972, when W. Thatcher Longstreth took on legendary Frank Rizzo, often derided as an outright bigot. Katz won the endorsement of John White Jr., a black former City Council member who lost to Street in the Democratic primary, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When less than two months before the 1999 election, Martin O’Malley, a white Democrat, won over black voters in his party’s primary to beat out a field of mostly black candidates, the comparisons were sure to be made, as was done by the New York Times.

In good part, Mr. O’Malley was able to bridge the racial voting gap by promising to take a ”zero tolerance” approach to crime in a city that is as terribly beset by robbery, murder and other urban mayhem as any in the country. But along with many other Baltimore leaders, he also optimistically saw his victory as proof that earlier victories by whites in mayoral contests in other heavily black cities, notably Oakland, Calif., and Gary, Ind., were part of a new political dynamic in America, not isolated racial flukes. Likewise, in the view of Mr. O’Malley and the other Baltimore leaders, when Willie Brown, who is black, won the 1996 Mayor’s race in San Francisco, which is only about 10 percent black, his victory was no racial fluke.”

Then in 2003, though, things went badly. Katz was portrayed as a George W. Bush puppet. Street’s previous term convinced white voters once terrified of his leadership that it wasn’t all that bad and blacks returned in full force to Street and the Democrats, Carl Singley, another black, former Street-confidant turned Katz supporter, be damned.

In most cities race plays a political role. In Philadelphia, it seems to be a foregone conclusion.

That current Republican mayoral contender Al Taubenberger, who is white, has never been thought to be a real candidate may be the only reason that even this election, with black Democrat Michael Nutter a favorite among whites, has avoided the race topic mostly.

With notable exceptions like White in 1999, Singley in 2003, and even a Gubernatorial candidate like Lynn Swann, a black Republican who got brushed aside by Ed Rendell in November 2006, as here reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Republican Party isn’t often tread by blacks.

While the Republicans often credit theirs being the party of Lincoln, it was with Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s – after a first warming with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940s – that blacks first rose to political power, particularly in places like Philadelphia. The loyalty is real.

If Philadelphia Republicans think the collective black vote is one unable to win over, the fear has to be what their recourse will be: race-baiting, suppressing the vote, or otherwise splitting the city’s electorate.

Cartoon courtesy of Cox and Forkum, via Japan Today.

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