No convention of a major political party in the city of Philadelphia can take place without great degrees of deference to its blackness.
Pundits unable or unwilling to do so will quickly melt into nonsensical half-assedness, the consequence of white-typecasting Philly with the lore of cheesesteaks, perennially angry Eagles fans and “Brotherly Love.” But in this vast, creaking city of 1.5 million, where more than 40 percent of the population is African American, its black experience is quintessential to its existence.
Democratic National Convention delegates are wrangling over a messy nomination process, which now includes Russian-hacked emails and the spurned sensibilities of typically white “Bernie or Bust” supporters. But the real urgency in this weeklong moment is found in Philadelphia's lingering problems of incessant poverty, broken schools and unchanged crumbling neighborhoods, resigned to eventual waves of merciless gentrification.
“Black people are still trying to figure out, ‘Where in the world is my piece of the pie?’” argues the Rev. Keon Gerow, senior pastor at Catalyst for Change Church in West Philadelphia. “We’ve got tens of thousands of people coming from across the country, some of the most powerful people on the planet come to this city, and poor black people in Philly are still eating crumbs from the American pie.”
As the convention unfolds, black Philly appears to complement it with exhales of relief peppered by mixes of indifference and scolding cynicism. For black folks in Philly, this election and this pit stop of a convention on the way to November are, of course, “relevant,” says beloved WDAS-FM daily DJ Patty Jackson. “But it feels like we are watching a show. I just hope people come out and vote.”
Barbara Grant, a Philadelphia media strategist and journalist on WURD-AM (Pennsylvania’s only black-owned talk radio station), hopes so, too. “There is real fear that we could end up with a President Donald Trump and that we could contribute to that outcome if we don't turn out a big vote.
“People are realizing that sitting it out is not an option if we care about the future of our people,” she adds.
Black Philly grapples with what is, very likely, the most consequential presidential election since 1968. The result is stone-faced grit, bracing for or preparing for the worst, since luck has always been (persistently) in very short supply for black Philadelphians. But it is betrayed (both in the stifling convention-week humidity and the cruelty of circumstance) by sightings of beady perspiration. When one is walking through the rusty, chipped-paint, pissy corridors of subway stations, or crossing streets of buckling sidewalks and ancient flat-top row houses barely standing, reflections on politics are interrupted by persistent hustle.
“I need a paycheck! I need food on the table!” a random brother chants back jokingly at a growing line of hot and bothered protesters outside the Wells Fargo Center subway stop. After a long, backbreaking day of labor, the black man draws little comfort from the anger outside. “It’s a struggle out here; they just don’t get it,” he says as he rushes onto the SEPTA Broad Street Line. “Take a walk in my shoes; I got kids to feed.
“I don’t need Bernie. I need overtime,” he adds.
Black Philly is jaded. It’s seen this episode before. It’s known white politicians who overpromise and don’t deliver, and it’s intimately familiar with white populist tyrants who bully their way into power. Much of it stems from pessimism, and being an outspoken curmudgeon is already built into the city’s DNA. Forgotten in the drama of the DNC is the fact that this year is the 200th birthday of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, when black Philly congregants under Richard Allen walked out of racist white churches to form the first organized black church.
Black Philly’s gritty political awareness, regardless of income or level of education or neighborhood, is often underappreciated. Even those who seem clueless on the current state of things while focused on living day to day offer keen insight. Take the 24-year-old sales rep in the high-end-sneaker store who one moment talks about the market for designer kicks and the next moment—after getting schooled on what the Democratic convention is—goes into a brilliant flow on “why they hate President Obama so much”: “Some of these people complain that Obama using too many drones, and he’s killing people overseas, and I’m like, ‘Yo, you still able to eat, ain’t you? ISIS n—gers ain’t showing up in your living room with a bomb strapped to they chest, right?’ And yeah, I’m not happy either that Bernie didn’t get elected.”
Or there’s Jeremy Cruel, a young North Philly-bred mobile car wash business owner who tells The Root that he believes “it doesn’t matter who wins an election because, black or not, it won’t be you. Politics is what it has always been. Someone needs to look up and check the scoreboards for once.”
Philly’s folks of color understand that they are in a unique and difficult position, living in a battleground state that could determine a national election—but “they are not going to the polls enthusiastically,” observes Keaton Nichols, a WURD-AM host and executive producer.
“In general, they’re not very hopeful. Black Philly is still very divided on their support of a Democratic candidate,” says Nichols. “Older voters favor Hillary Clinton and will do what they need to do to ensure Donald Trump doesn’t win. Young black voters are still angry and don’t seem to trust either side.”
Overall, however, there is black-Philly recognition that stakes are immeasurably high, given not only the “What comes next?” aspect of President Barack Obama’s imminent departure but also the very real threat of insanity crystallized into President Donald Trump. “You grew up here, so you remember Rizzo, right?” says one raspy-voiced black Philly boomer in line at a local Wawa, reflecting on the municipal-dictatorship days of head-cracking Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo.
Still, many maintain an optimism—albeit cautious optimism—about this election. “I’ve been hearing enthusiastic support for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic convention coming to Philadelphia,” Councilman Kenyatta Johnson (D-2nd District) tells The Root. “However, we want to make sure that once Clinton becomes president, she has an urban agenda, an agenda that focuses on bringing resources to our cities and our neighborhoods” for issues such as youth gun violence, affordable housing and education.
“When I’m in the barbershop, these are some of the key conversations taking place,” she says.
For West Philadelphia resident Bernadine Awes, it ends up global: “I think the issues that have been raised are relevant to people of color throughout the globe because we’re voting for the most powerful person on the planet. Even if it [the election] looks like a jamboree.”
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.