Monday, April 19, 2010

The Power and Problems Of Symbolic Politics

 In Up South, Matthew J. Countryman describes how the failures of liberalism to “substantively transform social inequities within the city's labor markets, residential neighborhoods, and public schools” complicated civil rights issues in Philadelphia. While laws banned explicit discrimination, the difficulties of creating “structural change” stemming from symbolic “racial fears and misconceptions that were at the root of interracial hatred and conflict” in the city (5). Though civil rights activists worked within the judicial system, they used public protest to combat misconceptions about black identity. Common identity and purpose united the community toward collective action, creating economic and political power independent of conventional city politics. Through symbolic political protest, the Philadelphia civil rights movement questioned the conscience of whites that were complicit in the elements of de-facto segregation.

While Philadelphia's Democratic reformers had promised to end explicit discriminatory practices, these politicians benefited from working with organizations like the NAACP in the legislative campaigns for civil rights leading up to 1951. Through symbolic support of the civil rights movement, liberal activists created a commitment to changing public policy and promised fundamental improvements to the black community. Countryman says social movement theorists describe this phenomenon as “discursive framing” (6). Blacks saw liberals promises to enforce of anti-discrimination laws and to provide equal access to city employment as steps towards improving their socioeconomic condition.

The legal and electoral successes of the coalition between New Deal Democrats and civil rights activists raised the hopes of opportunity for the city's black middle and working-classes. The Philadelphia Tribune ran an article about African American owned homes as a “celebration of racial progress and an attempt to refute stereotypes of black pathology” (49). Though more homes were black owned, blacks were restricted to sections of the city where whites were fleeing from for the suburbs. In a letter to the NAACP in 1952, William Levitt said while “he personally did not want an all-white policy in his developments...the white public which he served demanded it” (56). While the NAACP tried to file suit against Levitt, they found no support for their legal challenge without an explicit anti-discriminatory housing law. Though liberals had created the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations and Fair Employment Practices Commission promising to investigate hiring discrimination, the commissions were limited by budget constraints. Complaints of discrimination were hardly enforced effectively and as the agencies' failures became known to blacks they stopped filing complaints entirely. While some well paying government jobs and the ability to purchase a home were secured for some black Philadelphians as a tangible symbol of racial progress, the majority of blacks in the city lived in “deteriorating neighborhoods, were unemployed or stuck in unskilled jobs, and were forced to send their children to overcrowded, underfunded all black public schools” (79).

As liberals and government bureaucrats emphasized “legislative goals,” leaders in the Philadelphia black community grew frustrated with civil rights liberalism's failure to address problems like urban decay and juvenile delinquency during the second half of 1950s (84). The black working-class sought solutions to their problems through mass protest and self help. Protesters organized pickets against businesses that applied discriminatory practices. Protesters emphasized changing the perception of the kinds of jobs that blacks held (103). Other organizers like Leon Sullivan argued that blacks should try to become “owners of property, businesses, and industry within their own communities,” maintaining independent power from whites (111).
Cecil Moore's protests against the employment bias in the Philadelphia construction industry conveyed the failures of Democrats to enforce their promise of anti-discrimination laws. The mass protests not only reminded liberals of the debt they owed to the community that had gained their electoral success but it also put pressure on them to explain to white constituencies how their techniques had failed to rectified racial injustice. Eventually, Moore's negotiations secured government construction projects for some blacks in the construction industry but more importantly created a precedent for government intervention to provide “affirmative action” within government projects which would later become expanded as a national model known as the “Philadelphia Plan.” Though Moore's protest effectively used black solidarity as uniting symbol against the failures of white organization, he refuses to allow liberals to abuse his message towards their benefit, explicitly defining his policy goals (123). Moore's aggressive rhetoric threatening the needs of whites served to expose the hypocrisy of liberal inaction that allowed systemic threats to the needs of his community. The successes of the construction protests showed the community that mass protest had the “potential to achieve what years of legislative and court victories had not” (149).

With clear and explicit opposition defining the protests, Cecil Moore differentiated the black community's support for Democrats in the previous elections from their position towards Democratic policies that failed to achieve what Democrats had promised in their projections of a racially bias free city. Despite the enthusiasm within the black community for these protests, they did not achieve all the changes Cecil Moore desired within the labor markets. Cecil continued to combat the problems perpetuated by the Democratic machine in his opposition to Mayor Tate's favoring “white working- and lower-middle-class communities” (154).

Days before the mayoral election in October 1963, riots broke out in Philadelphia, making clear that liberal claims of “racial progress” in the city were not representative of the conditions in the North Philadelphia neighborhoods. After police shot a man for stealing a watch, rioters looted white-owned businesses within the neighborhood (160). Moore's alliance with police forces in breaking up the riots may have lost him some credibility with rioters but it also signified that Moore was not simply a black nationalist demagogue. While Moore did not defend the “hoodlums” involved in the riots, he differentiated his support for law and order from his support of the police or the Tate administration's racist policies.

Moore's protests at Girard College became his major initiative for NAACP in the year following the riots. His use of gang members to climb the walls of the college symbolized how the failures of liberal policy to eliminate discrimination within the city had failed to rectify the conditions that had caused the riots. Moore's dispute with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s attendance showed the need for his protest to not only display solidarity within race but through ideology, making clear that black nationalism free from the influence of whites was the way for blacks to defend themselves against the harms of discrimination. Disputes with the police during the protest highlighted the community's continual distrust of the figures of authority that operated under the leadership of Frank Rizzo. Moore remarked that the police's “apparent unequal enforcement of the law” had caused the violence (173). Though self defense had not effectively changed the nature of police presence from day to day in their neighborhoods, the violent imagery of police combating black youth served to highlight the inequalities of the criminal justice system. These protests turned the negative imagery of the riots into a mechanism for criticizing the failures of liberalism to resolve the problems of their community.

The protests of the civil rights movement in Philadelphia during the 1960s served to distinguish the black community's support for Democrats in earlier elections from their dissatisfaction with liberalism's preference for its white constituencies.
Symbolic protest drew attention to the complicated issues that liberal symbolic promises of racial progress, a colorblind city and equal opportunity had failed to address and achieve. Though symbolic protest helped in consolidating the power of black communities in Philadelphia, the politics of separatism made cooperation within white dominated systems like the courts and legislature a difficult task for black leaders. While these leaders explicitly explained their rational reasons for distrusting whites, their opposition to whites complicated the relationship between the black community had elected the New Deal Democrats into office and the whites that had helped them form that coalition. The politics of self defense and self reliance enabled blacks to break free from the constraints of traditional politics, rejecting the token support of whites that promised civil rights as more of a relief of their conscience than for constructing community.