So what do you say about young black men in Philadelphia taking the subway downtown to find white people to beat up? There are two standard responses, one more sophisticated than the other one, and both useless.
I have a better one, but first let’s look at why we have to let the typical ones go.
The less sophisticated one, unfortunately taken up by Mayor Michael Nutter in a church talk last Sunday, is that black parents need to shape up. “Get a hold of your kids before we have to,” he intoned.
As Rocky the Flying Squirrel said, “That trick never works.” Boys will be boys, especially when most of them have only one overworked parent, likely raised in the same street culture her sons were. People have been getting all flinty on inner-city black parents for 50 years now, and all it has ever created is some editorials (or, in the case of Bill Cosby, a book or three).
One of the editorials this time was Annette John-Hall’s at the Inquirer, which brings us in its way to the more sophisticated, but equally useless, take on the flash mobs. John-Hall seems to have found Nutter’s address faintly ridiculous — pompous, more precisely, with the implication that he is missing some larger reason for these young men’s behavior.
She doesn’t spell it out, but I can guess what she’s thinking: These youths are acting out against a racist society. That’s deep, but it’s only useful if we’re talking about a kind of racism that we can conceive of eliminating.
Beyond Institutional Racism
Are they dealing with the kind of racism on view these days in a movie like The Help, about the Old South? Clearly not. Presumably we mean “institutional” racism. But even here, to figure out what we really want to do about the youths’ behavior, we have to get specific.
Are they mainly targeting white people for beatings because they’re angry that low-skill factory jobs aren’t as available as they were 40 years ago? Obviously that’s too abstract. Are they angry because white people get slightly better car loans than black people? Are they pushing a white woman to the ground because they’re angry that their school isn’t great?