Philadelphia voters elected their first Black woman mayor in November. But will Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker actually improve the lives of Philly’s Black residents?
While a political candidate’s race isn’t the most important factor for Black voters, it is a factor. Black representation in political spaces comes with an expectation that the circumstances and concerns of Black people are spoken for at the policymaking table. That Parker is a Black woman leading a city where Black people are a majority simply cannot be ignored.
She’ll be expected to address various challenges, including education, economic development and public safety — namely gun violence — which is likely her highest priority. Local exit polling data from the crowded Democratic primary shows that Parker was propelled to City Hall by voters who were Black, low-income, lived in areas with the most gun violence, or some combination of the three.
While the city’s gun violence is down compared to last year, “2023 follows three of the most violent years in recent memory.” Yet, Mayor-elect Parker’s response to gun violence is more policing: hiring more officers and reintroducing stop-and-frisk, the practice of temporarily stopping, questioning and searching anyone an officer suspects of a crime. To do that, an officer is supposed to have reasonable suspicion; that is, a reasonable belief that a crime is occurring or has already happened.
Research has well-established the fact that stop-and-frisk disproportionately target Black people. Black men specifically are more likely to be stopped and searched. Parker herself seems to acknowledge this in saying, “There is no place for unconstitutional stop and frisk…. Terry stops are what I wholeheartedly embrace as a tool that law enforcement needs, to make the public safety of our city their number one priority. It is a legal tool.”
But a “Terry stop” is just another name for stop-and-frisk. The term Terry stop comes from the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, in which three men were stopped and frisked by a plainclothes police officer who suspected a robbery was taking place. While the Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches and seizures, the court ruled that if and when a police officer observes unusual conduct by someone the officer reasonably believes to be dangerous and engaged in criminal activity, the officer is “entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a limited search to discover weapons that might be used against the officer.”
Stop-and-frisk works in tandem with “broken windows” policing — the idea that policing smaller crimes such as loitering, graffitiing or actual broken windows will prevent bigger crimes from happening.
Stop-and-frisk reemerging in Philadelphia likely means that, once again, Black people will be subject to targeting and harassment by police, further fracturing the relationship between Black people and the Philadelphia Police Department, undercutting whatever goals Mayor-elect Parker has for her “community policing” initiatives.
The practice of stop-and-frisk was used for decades in Philadelphia as a result of Terry v. Ohio. The administration of then-Mayor Michael Nutter significantly ramped up the practice in 2009 — doubling the number of pedestrian stops. Few, if any, of these stops produced an arrest of firearms on the people who were stopped. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a class action suit. The result was a settlement and promise to reform its practices by the city of Philadelphia.
The “reform” resulted in an electronic database tracking of all stop-and-frisks citywide. The practice has seen a decline since 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic has more to do with that than an effort on the part of city officials. Upon stop-and-frisk being declared unconstitutional in 2013, Mayor Jim Kenney promised to eliminate the practice, however, he reversed course.
As for Parker, she won’t be the first Black mayor to adopt a “tough-on-crime” approach. Atlanta Mayors Andre Dickens and Keisha Lance Bottoms, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and New York City Mayor Eric Adams have done the same in some form or fashion. Sadly, I suspect Mayor-elect Parker won’t be the last either.
Black people want to feel safe — but not in exchange for mass incarcerating our neighborhoods, as Black people are already overrepresented in the criminal legal system in Pennsylvania. As gun violence activist Reuben Jones said, “Philadelphians were crying out for help.… People made a choice, and the choice wasn’t ‘okay, we’re going to sacrifice our civil liberties in exchange for public safety’…. That wasn’t a choice that was made.”
Since these policy decisions disproportionately harm Black people, should we then say that Black elected officials like Parker and others are racist or anti-Black? Borrowing from Sonia Sanchez, an even better question to ask is: How do Black elected officials actually free Black people?
To be clear, Black representation is important. As a Black educator, I can tell you that Black teachers in schools matter. However, securing Black representation is only the starting line. Black elected officials contend with a few factors that slow them down upon takeoff, including the challenges of governing within white institutional spaces at the local, state and federal levels.
According to scholars Glenn Bracey and Wendy Leo Moore, white institutional spaces are spaces that are inherently white in their formations: demographically, culturally, structurally and ideologically. But they are not white explicitly. The norms of whiteness are embedded within the fabric of the institution; so much so that racist norms are improperly (and purposefully) defined as “ race-neutral.”
Black people’s mere representation in government doesn’t suddenly transform those institutional spaces so that they are no longer white. Black elected officials often face pushback when confronting the forces of Black oppression within an institution where the forces of Black oppression are so deeply embedded.
Further, many Black elected officials are a generation or so removed from the civil rights movement — meaning they weren’t politically active during the movement — not that being a participant of or living through the movement is a prerequisite for serving in politics. Still, the experiences of civil rights-era politicians like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Marion Berry, Harold Washington, Shirley Chisholm, and others mean something.
The civil rights movement not only secured crucial rights for African Americans, but it also procured a set of privileges in the form of access to white institutional spaces. Confronting conservatives and liberals alike has since taken a back seat to elected, raising money and getting reelected.
It means forming partnerships with organizations that more than likely do not align with the Black radical tradition. Representing those organizations takes precedence over representing the constituency to whom the symbolism of Black radicalism and the African American vernacular is employed to secure their votes.
Lastly, Black elected officials operating in largely post-industrial cities struggle to keep them afloat. When white people fled from cities, well paying jobs and the tax base fled too. Most, if not all, of the remaining well paying jobs are those filled with nonresidents, Camden, New Jersey, is an example. That reality makes it difficult for any mayor to be a visionary.
Instead, they’re expected to keep fledgling cities afloat; investing in Black communities isn’t the highest priority. High quality jobs and schools remain a rarity. Meanwhile, attention remains focused on attracting businesses and higher salaried workers, most of whom are more invested in tax breaks than the city itself.
Businesses and high salaried workers desire to be safe in the cities where they work, while many Black elected officials look to secure their own positions and power. Thus a “tough-on-crime” approach begins to make sense for Black elected officials working in spaces where perceptions “favor white material and emotional interests.”
We all want to live in safe conditions, Black people included, but stop-and-frisk and/or broken windows policing isn’t the answer. Black people’s confidence in police and satisfaction with so-called community policing is lower than the national average: Policing tactics such as Parker’s “Terry stops” won’t increase that confidence. Calls for public safety aren’t calls for racism, nor is racism required to keep Black people safe — racism of course makes us less safe.
So, will Parker’s swearing-in in January actually free Black folk? I’d say it won’t.
It takes longer to read this sentence than it does to support our work.
We don’t have much time left to raise the $15,000 needed to meet Truthout‘s basic publishing costs this month. Will you take a few seconds to donate and give us a much-needed boost?
We know you are deeply committed to the issues that matter, and you count on us to bring you trustworthy reporting and comprehensive analysis on the real issues facing our country and the world. And as a nonprofit newsroom supported by reader donations, we’re counting on you too. If you believe in the importance of an independent, free media, please make a tax-deductible donation today!