Growing up and attending public schools in Philadelphia in the 1960s, I got an up close and personal view of the American founding, race relations, diversity and its discontents. The Pledge of Allegiance’s promise of “liberty and justice for all” would probably be termed white supremacist systemic racism by today’s mostly peaceful protesters, but in Philadelphia I was taught America was founded in freedom in 1776, not slavery in 1619.
Elementary school trips to cobblestoned streets and Independence Hall introduced us personally to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention. In 1966, Catherine Drinker Bowen published Miracle at Philadelphia, the story of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was a big deal in Philadelphia, and if the intricacies of how the Founders parsed and divided power to protect freedom, prevent tyranny and the historical excesses of democracy might have been somewhat beyond a ten-year-old, a love of freedom and America were not. Ben Franklin’s declaration and warning that we had “A republic, if you can keep it” resonated with me, even as the social unrest of the late ‘60s accelerated with Vietnam, assassinations and riots. I hope the statue of George Washington outside Independence Hall survives the current unpleasantness.
My immediate neighborhood on the edge of Northwestern Philadelphia was a mixture of middle class Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant families, mostly children and grandchildren of European immigrants. Our neighborhood was adjacent to a less affluent black neighborhood, and our elementary school was nominally integrated, although the white kids and black kids did not mix much. There was some real tension between Jewish and Eastern European Christian parents, which my Ukrainian friends and I ignored. Pogroms, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism were fresh memories for the older generation; my father did not like to admit our family came from the Eastern Ukrainian/Russian border area now invaded by Putin and defended by Ukrainians armed by the Trump administration. (Lest we forget, all the Obama/Biden administration would send to Russian invaded Ukraine was “non-lethal” aid like blankets and “Meals Ready to Eat” (MRE).
As Philadelphia dealt with integrating the public schools, the reality of racially homogenous neighborhoods presented a challenge. Bussing, which vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris lauded and attacked her running mate for opposing, was not popular. White flight to the suburbs and/or Quaker and Catholic private schools was a real concern. My parents enrolled my sister and me in an experimental alternative at a middle school in the adjacent black neighborhood. If we went to the 98% black school, we could do 6th, 7th and 8th grade in two years. Thus, a small cohort of white mostly Jewish kids were taken into the black neighborhood daily, where we “integrated”. Except we didn’t really. We stuck out like sore thumbs, and seemed as alien to the black kids as they did to us. With the exception of gym and assembly, we did not mix.
My high school was an all-male academic magnet school. It was racially if not gender integrated, and the academic focus gave the students some common ground. It was majority white, and almost all the faculty were white males. A black female social studies hire was brought in to diversify the faculty and the curriculum. She did not like Jewish white boys very much and we returned the favor. It was my first experience with affirmative action, and not a positive one.
I left Philadelphia for college (and Maine) in 1973, and except for a few holiday visits, never really went back. In 2008, I organized a trip with my sisters and late father to visit our old house and neighborhood. The neighborhood was now almost completely Korean, and the Philadelphia we remembered largely gone. However, the spirit and love of freedom is still there.
Last week I found another miracle at Philadelphia, a statement in support of free speech and inquiry and opposed to intolerant cancel culture. Here is the opening of the Philadelphia Statement on Civil Discourse and the Strengthening of Liberal Democracy:
“Social Media mobs. Cancel culture. Campus speech policing. These are all part of life in today’s America. Freedom of expression is in crisis. Truly open discourse—the debates, exchange of ideas, and arguments on which the health and flourishing of a democratic republic crucially depend—is increasingly rare. Ideologues demonize opponents to block debates on important issues and to silence people with whom they disagree.”
We must ask ourselves: Is this the country we want? Surely not. We want—and to be true to ourselves we need—to be a nation in which we and our fellow citizens of many different faiths, philosophies, and persuasions can speak their minds and honor their deepest convictions without fear of punishment and retaliation.
If we seek a brighter future, we must relearn a fundamental truth: Our liberty and our happiness depend upon the maintenance of a public culture in which freedom and civility coexist—where people can disagree robustly, even fiercely, yet treat each other as human beings—and, indeed, as fellow citizens—not mortal enemies. “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist,” Frederick Douglass declared in 1860. Indeed, our liberal democracy is rooted in and dependent upon the shared understanding that all people have inherent dignity and worth, and that they must be treated accordingly.”
More than 6,500 people, including me, have signed the statement so far. You can find it at https://thephillystatement.org/
Jon Reisman is an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias. His views are his own. Mr. Reisman welcomes comments as letters to the editor here, or to him directly via email at [email protected].