As I walked down 15th Street in Center City this past Saturday night -- amidst drunken white girls in green mini skirts and green heels with green bows in their hair, and belligerent white boys wearing green beaded necklaces and funny-shaped glasses yelling and chasing after the girls -- I could not help but think, this is what it actually means to be white in Philadelphia.
In February 2013, Philadelphia Magazine published the now-infamous article "Being White in Philly: Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said," in which author Robert Huber asked select, anonymous white Philadelphians to share their "race story" (in other words, their individual feelings about black people). According to Huber:
[E]veryone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it's talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.
In keeping with Huber's purported aim to get rid of the elephant in the room, I offer some of the thoughts that crossed my mind Saturday night as I passed a young blond girl in a "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" T-shirt peeing on the sidewalk while a redheaded boy with freckles pinched her.
Seriously? You cannot be fucking serious. But, of course you're serious. You're white in Center City. As I continued to make my way down the shit show covered in shamrocks, I asked myself, what if all these people outside were black? If we are to go by recent Philadelphia policies and legislation -- many of which disproportionately target people of color (e.g., stop and frisk, "zero tolerance" policies, curfew ordinances, voter ID laws) -- I am almost certain that had these been masses of drunken black teenagers and young adults decked in matching colors, they would have been deemed gang members, looters, flash mobsters, and subsequently stopped and frisked, beaten, and/or arrested.
I am thinking about the Philadelphia "flash mobs" that garnered much media attention in the summers of 2010 and 2011, during which the media created a moral panic around black youth, violence and crime organized via social media sites after hundreds of black kids spontaneously appeared on South Street in downtown Philadelphia. Newspaper headlines read "Black-mob violence flooding Philadelphia" and "Another Flash Mob Rocks South Street: In the 'Tsunami,' chants of 'Burn the City!'" -- the menacing language reminiscent of the alleged "wilding" that, most infamously, was purportedly behind the 1989 vicious rape-beating of the "Central Park jogger" in Manhattan. Though some Philadelphia teens did engage in acts of vandalism, the majority were nonviolent kids just hanging out, some watching break-dancing performances. Nevertheless, Philadelphia mayor, Michael Nutter, imposed a stiffer curfew for people under 18 and delivered a Bill Cosby Pound-Cake-esque lecture from a pulpit at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in which he told black youth: "You have damaged your own race," and instructed them to "Pull your pants up and buy a belt." In addition, social-media networks were monitored with assistance from the FBI, news crews and Philadelphia police flooded the streets, and dozens of people were arrested.
Thus, as I watched the white mobs in green on Saturday night, I was struck by the lack of law enforcement. I can personally recall several family cookouts, block parties, birthday parties and informal gatherings of black and brown family members and friends in which multiple men and women in uniform and police cars and even police dogs showed up. How over one hundred drunk people could be loitering on a major street and not one police officer be noticeably present was astonishing. It was also a reminder of the kind of society that we live in.
To most of America, more than one Black/Latino standing next to each other wearing the same color equals gang, threat, flash mob. Not drink specials, themed parties, and excused belligerence.
You call it St. Patrick's Day; I call it white privilege -- or being white in Philadelphia and America.