James Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

By Purnell, Brian | The Journal of African American History, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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James Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love


Purnell, Brian, The Journal of African American History


James Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. 336. Cloth $49.95.

Most commentators agree that the shift rightward in U.S. politics began in the late 1960s, when Richard Nixon's "silent majority" reacted against radical antiwar protesters, militant Black Power advocates, and urban violence and abandoned the Democratic Party. Nixon's victory in the 1968 presidential election, and his resounding defeat of George McGovern in 1972, signaled a Republican takeover of national politics that remained virtually undisturbed for thirty years. During that time Republicans won seven of ten presidential elections, and conservatives shaped domestic social and political issues from abortion rights and affirmative action to "law and order" policies.

Why this shift from the New Deal liberal consensus to conservatism occurred has become a subject of growing interest for social and political historians. In 1996 Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis challenged the liberal consensus paradigm for the postwar period with a close examination of how Detroit's "simmering politics of race" constantly undermined and threatened to destroy the Democrats' tenuous interracial alliances. If Sugrue's thesis was borne out by research in other northern cities, then historians would have to confront the possibility that a liberal consensus was, in the words of historian Gary Gerstle, "never anything more than a comforting mirage."

James Wolfinger's engrossing social history of early 20th-century Philadelphia politics confirms many of Sugrue's claims. Philadelphia's Irish, Italian, Jewish, and African American populations are the book's main characters; but much of the book's drama centers on the conflicts and tensions that surrounded African Americans' increasing political clout in the new, New Deal-inspired Democratic Party, which increased African Americans' demands for increased access to housing and jobs. Wolfinger's study "revamps the picture of liberalism transcendent" and challenges conceptions of the state as a vehicle for positive social change. Adherents to the Congress of Industrial Organization's interracial industrial unionism, leftists who embraced the Communist Party's ethos of workers' interracial solidarity, black activists in the National Negro Congress and the NAACP, and progressive whites from various Jewish and Christian (including Quaker) groups did indeed champion an egalitarian approach to politics and democratic principles. But this occurred for only a brief moment such as during the fabled New Deal coalition that peaked with the presidential election of 1936, or in rare instances when black political assertions did not interfere with whites' lives, such as when African Americans advocated for federal funds to build public housing in predominantly black neighborhoods. Wolfinger argues that "ordinary whites in the urban North imposed fundamental limitations on liberalism from below," and rather than being part of a liberal consensus that was later spoiled by events of the late 1960s, "many white working-class Democrats made it clear from the start that certain liberal policies were off-limits."

Organized into three sections, Philadelphia Divided chronicles how white racism frayed the seams of the Democrats' tenuously woven interracial alliances and the ways in which Republicans capitalized on racism's power to divide working-class whites and African Americans.

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