Timothy Lombardo is a native of Northeast Philadelphia and the author of Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics. We caught up with him to discuss the post-war dynamics that gave rise to blue-collar conservatism, white ethnic support for law and order as a fix all solution to social problems, and the foreclosure of working class solidarity across the color line. We examine how the recent wave of anti-police protests, especially the participation of large numbers of young white people, offer us a glimpse into a different present and future possibilities.
Hard Crackers: Why are so many working class whites gathering around right wing populism, demagogues and racists?
Timothy Lombardo: I think we need to move beyond the sometimes-simplistic ways we try to think about why white people support who they do. I try to be careful in my book to not pin it all on resentment. While right-wing leaders do certainly try to tap into resentment, they are also offering affirmation. And whatever you and I personally think of it, we need a better understanding of its roots. It is easy to caricature Rizzo, Trump and their supporters. When I was finishing the book up, it was right after Trump was elected. So, the main question posed was: is it racism or economic insecurity? And I kept coming back to why is it one or the other? Economic insecurity and racism are both reasons why Rizzo and Trump rose to power.
Let’s take Frank Rizzo, for instance. He was Philadelphia’s police commissioner in the 1960s, very tough and took a hard line on crime. He called himself the “toughest cop in America” when running for mayor and was an authoritarian figure overall. What he offered white people was an affirmation that there was nothing wrong with their traditions and beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, he fed into their resentment of civil rights, integration and fear of crime. But he was also an Italian American, grew up in a row home, dropped out of high school, worked his way up to become mayor. Many white ethnics saw themselves in this immigrant’s son who rose up the ranks to become the toughest cop and toughest mayor. That was an affirmation that he was on their side and symbolically he meant something to them.
This is a lot of the attraction to Trump as well. I remember in 2016 you kept seeing over and over is people saying, “he tells it like it is,” and “he sounds like we do.” It helps him a great deal that he is unpolished, and he sounds like he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Trump certainly doesn’t sound like the “egghead” on TV telling people how they should live their lives. He sounds like the guy that’s shooting from his hip. On a symbolic level that’s important. On the campaign trail, Trump’s son referred to his father as a blue-collar billionaire. I mean what is that? You and I know that’s not a thing, but it speaks to that common sense that he doesn’t talk like an American elite.
Map of Philadelphia
HC: What is really interesting about your book is that you focus on how pride emerges as an integral aspect of working-class white ethnic identity and worldview at a time of great transformation and change in urban America. For instance, the first chapter of the book describes Philadelphia’s working-class white ethnic neighborhoods in the late 1950s and how they saw themselves in a changing landscape of deindustrialization, job loss and African American and Puerto Rican migration. By this time areas like Kensington and neighboring North Philadelphia experience a rise in crime and urban blight. The media often referred to Kensington, a working-class white ethnic neighborhood as a “jungle.” Yet, working class -white ethnics reject this portrayal and instead embrace pride in their neighborhood and flip it around and argue it’s the black parts of the city, namely North Philadelphia that is “the jungle.” Can you tell us more Philadelphia’s “proud neighborhoods” and how they saw work and life at this time?
TL: I appreciate the close reading. It goes back to affirmation and the feelings of pride that it taps into. In this case you are talking about the differences between Kensington and North Philadelphia. Where do you draw the line around what is slowly becoming Philadelphia’s biggest ghetto? Materially there was very little difference between these neighborhoods. Both areas were hit hard by deindustrialization and changes in the economy. But what we see emerge is community defensiveness. In northern cities, segregation was informally enforced. And this is what you see pride doing here. So, many working class whites would say: “We are not the ‘jungle.’ That’s where those people live. We are ‘proud of our neighborhood.’” Pride becomes a means of defense and differentiation.
In Philadelphia, which didn’t have legal Jim Crow, pride and hard work were the language of informal segregation. The way white ethnics talk about pride and hard work is important. The concept of hard work means different things and it’s an ill-defined concept. It can mean working your way up, purchasing your own home, or whatever else. According to this narrative, certain people do not have this work ethic. So hard work is used to draw a line around a neighborhood and say: if you don’t have the same pride in your neighborhood and job then you don’t belong here. The white ethnics in Philadelphia talked about pride as if it was a finite resource. There is a mythic sense of pulling themselves by their bootstrap and pride becomes a means of differentiation and exclusion. Pride reaffirms what they think they already know about their neighbor. Kensington was where the hard line was drawn between “proud” neighborhoods and urban “jungles.”
HC: At this time liberal elites in many cities are trying to come to terms with racial disparities in housing, schooling and policing. Yet your book makes clear that these “reform liberals” do very little to address racial segregation, and instead ultimately reinforce it.
TL: It comes down to a lack of vision and second a lack of willingness. Lack of vision to see beyond the technocratic means of bringing about changes. Philadelphia in the 1950s is very interesting because we see the reform coalition completely revamp and change how Philadelphia government is run. As I argue in the book, liberals in Philadelphia at this time are more committed to civil rights than any other urban administration in the country. But they are not willing to go in and deal with the larger structural problems. This is the biggest critique of modern American liberalism. It’s that its pretty good at locating the problem but never willing to go far enough to correct it.
Public housing in Philadelphia and across the US is a good example of this. As these cities’ populations were rising and declining, you have a fear of losing the white base of political support and the decline of industry, of housing stock, etc. The solution, beginning in the 1930s, is to build public housing. It works well in the 1930s. And it works very well in the 1940s, when its primarily temporary housing for soldiers, war workers, and their families. This is a government solution to a social problem. But the new problem that arises becomes site selection. Where do you put it? What happens in Philadelphia and Chicago and New York is the same thing. While the urban liberal reformers have a vision of what they want do, the white ethnics are opposed to public housing built in their neighborhoods, largely because they begin to link it to race and crime. White ethnics complain and white liberal reformers don’t want to risk alienating them, so they put public housing projects in North Philadelphia and West Chicago and in the Bronx, where it’s already overwhelmingly poor people of color. What starts out as an idea to house the underprivileged creates areas of spatially concentrated poverty. And that becomes the “jungle,” and it’s forever seen as untouchable. So even people are moving out of public housing they are tainted with that stigma.
HC: It seems that a layer of the liberal political elite in Philadelphia was dedicated to dealing head-on with racial segregation.
TL: In Philadelphia in the 1950s, they were putting their money where their mouth was. Philadelphia was the first city to create a municipal body to addressing discrimination, community tensions and to promote integration. It was called Philadelphia Commission for Human Relations. George Shermer, who spearheaded that effort, was brought in from Detroit where he was fired because he was too in favor of integration. So, there is a real commitment to addressing the problem of discrimination but in a liberal “address the surface problem” way. Another key person in the book is Richardson Dilworth, who was district attorney, then mayor in late 1950s and then president of school board at the height of the struggle against school segregation. He was hated by the end of the 1960s, especially by the people I wrote about, because he was pushing integration. I went through all his papers and he got so much hate mail. But he wrote back to people and was really snarky too. But looking at his papers and talking with people in Philadelphia, here was a man that was committed to fighting for integration, but limited by vision and local political structures. I think we don’t talk about the fact liberals are operating within a broader system and there are limits to what they can accomplish. It’s not about just intentionality and lack of vision, it’s about what they can or cannot do.
Postcard to Philadelphia Board of Education President Richardson Dilworth following the student protests and police action of November 18, 1967. Richardson Dilworth Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania
HC: Going back to the struggle many white ethnics mounted against integration. You argue that racism is an important aspect of blue-collar conservatism, but white ethnics cannot be written off simply as reactionaries either. They don’t reject welfare, for instance. So, how do they shift from supporting welfare programs to embracing “law and order?”
TL: Let’s start with welfare liberalism. One of the points I try to make is that they never really turn away from it. This turn against welfare liberalism is often overstated. Working class white ethnics don’t necessarily have a problem with liberalism, they have a problem with liberals. These are people who would at the same time are fighting against public housing, they are demanding more money to be coming into their community. But this is still government money, its coming from government coffers and its “hand out” money, which is what they would call it if other people demanded it. They never fully rejected the welfare state. In the book I call it a “selective rejection of welfare liberalism.” That selectivity happened with programs targeted at poor people or people of color, which in their minds were usually one and the same. In their minds, “those” people didn’t earn it. They never give up on government money or government action or government involvement in the economy, especially in the urban economy or environment, but selectively reject it for people they don’t deem worthy.
That’s what the title of the book is getting at. We have a tendency to bifurcate our politics between left and right, but that causes us to miss a lot of the in-between. These people are not libertarians. Very few people leave the Democratic Party. They still believe that these programs can work, as long as they are for the right people, those they define as worthy. This is very important. When Reagan comes in, he talks about it in a way that was very appealing to these blue-collar conservatives. He focuses on who to blame and he focuses on the “welfare queen,” the person who historically does not exist, it’s a fiction. But it plays into ideas about race, gender, class and poverty and who is getting a honored advantage. We have these people support government programs but claim that some people don’t deserve them. Reagan comes along and feeds right into all of these beliefs.
He is talking their language. He is not attacking their unions (even though he is anti-union), their tradition, or their ideas, but he will attack the people they think are ripping them off. This was his appeal to the so-called “Reagan Democrat.” We sometimes overemphasize how unpopular liberalism became. Reagan Democrats turned on liberals, not necessarily liberalism. We can take straight up to Trump.
Trump is not traditionally conservative. He is authoritarian. During his campaign speeches, he was talking about increases to social security not cuts. All the things the Republican Party since Reagan has done, he is saying he won’t do. But what he will do is lay the blame on immigrants for the problems facing many working-class whites.
Some of us who study the rise of conservativism are beginning to question the narrative of the rise of the right, and think of it more as the rise of anti-liberalism than actual conservatism.
HC: The ideas associated with blue-collar conservatism are exemplified in the rise Rizzo and the turn to law and order politics as the antidote to the urban crisis. How did Rizzo symbolize blue collar conservatism?
TL: Rizzo is well known throughout the country but there’s also something very Philadelphia about him. And that matters. The opening vignette of the book is about South Philly and someone says: he is “one of us.” And that mattes so much to people. He is not pretentious and not an egg head. He is tough. There is a gender dynamic to a lot of all this. Of all the threats working class whites see, whether they are from liberals or Black Panthers, what you need is a masculine tough guy to confront them. He is the embodiment of ultra-masculine figure who is tougher than the Black Panthers.
Yet, there is only so much he can do. His time in office occurs with deindustrialization and he can’t help these people materially. Even today there is a living memory of Rizzo and his supporters tell me that there was no crime in Philadelphia in the 1970s and taxes were low. This is not true at all. Rizzo gave the city the biggest tax increase in its history and crime rose to new heights.
HC: There’s definitely a mythology to Rizzo. How do you see this changing with protest movement today? Recently in Fishtown, a Rizzo stronghold, white men came out with bats to defend their neighborhood from looters.
TL: Yes, and protestors also came to defend the Columbus statue wearing Rizzo shirts. They are resurrecting Rizzo. I posted on Twitter that it’s like watching my book come to life, but I would still argue for a part of the city that is already in the minority. Since Rizzo’s reign, the city has grown and become more progressive. The new Philadelphia DA came to office talking about no longer jailing people for minor offenses. There is limits of course to what liberals can do for office, but this is a major turn away from Rizzo’s era.
I clearly don’t agree with the people in my book, but I want to present them fairly historically. When we think about backlash framing, we see them as single-minded. We don’t see their political evolution. I wanted to show the human side of them. I am probably related to some of them. I am Italian-Polish American who grew up in white ethnic neighborhoods. I wanted to show them as fully developed complex people. There is of course a cruel side to them and that is harmful and not concerned with who they are harming.
HC: What was the cruel effects of Rizzo and of “law and order” politics on Philadelphia’s black communities?
TL: Rizzo really influenced law enforcement, which affected the lives of working-class African Americans. First and foremost, not only do African Americans in North and West Philadelphia have a problem with police, at this point and time, they are the victims of crime more than anybody else. In North Philadelphia crime was real. In the 1960s and 1970s there are a few people in North Philadelphia who are willing to work with Rizzo, especially ministers and religious leaders, and people who come together and hold these Saturday night walks around the community to stop crime themselves. You have organizations like North City Congress (NCC) that completely recognized the impact the drug trade and gangs were having on the neighborhood. NCC was actively bringing rival gangs together into a truce. One of the points in I make in the book and a forthcoming article is Rizzo takes a lot of the credit for the decline of crime, but it’s not his to take. There are serious community efforts to do so, including the Black Panthers. But Rizzo does not work with North City Congress because at the same time that the NCC is talking about community efforts to stop crime they are also worried about police brutality. They want something done because crime was very real, but they want the police to treat them like they are part of the community. Rizzo actually dissolves a lot of the effort that is made to have community-police relations and he worked against the establishment of community police boards.
There are justifiable critiques of civilian review boards but at the time it was something. Rizzo got rid of that in exchange for police. His defenders will say that he included African American cops. But this was in the context of extending the police department. Instead of community policing, he treated black communities as a war zone. And that mentality in Philadelphia can be traced to Rizzo.
In 1968-1969, in response to riots, Rizzo ordered armored vehicles. This was years before the city got military weapons. He is in the forefront of all of that. In 1967-1968, he literally says that he is adopting policing of stop and frisk before it became a nationwide phenomenon. And the result of that was the overpolicing and over criminalization of black Philadelphia that we can trace to today.
As mayor, Rizzo also oversaw the cutting of funds to public housing. The city was legitimately facing a fiscal crisis. Rizzo allowed the closing of Philadelphia Hospital, which used by poor people and poor people of color. It’s just gone. All that’s left is private healthcare in the city. Those things affected African American and Puerto Rican communities.
HC: And Rizzo also goes after the Panthers.
TL: Yes, Rizzo tries to put a stop to the Panthers before they get started. One of the things that Rizzo and media (who is really a mouthpiece of the police) do is that they overlook the various activities of the Panthers. So even today for instance, students are surprised that most Black Panthers were women or that their community programs including breakfast programs were way more what they did on day-to-day basis. What happens is that Rizzo blames Black Panther Party for a series of police murders. He has no evidence. But he blames and them and uses it as a means to orchestrate raids, the famous picture of the Black Panther stripped down and up against the wall. He makes sure the panthers are short-lived in Philadelphia. Under Rizzo the threat of black nationalism set up law-and-order as the response. And the black nationalists would say: look at the police violence, this is why we need self-defense. Both grow at the same time.
HC: It’s interesting because the today people are drawing up simple analogies to the 1960s. It seems to me that while Trump has embraced the rhetoric of “law-and-order” America has changed dramatically between the 1970s and today.
TL: The 1960s comparisons are facile. Of course, there are similarities but let’s talk about the differences. The 1960s was an era when economic inequality in the US was near its lowest. That’s not to discount racism and segregation. But we are at a point where economic inequality is at its worst. We also really need to take into account generational differences. These protestors are young. We are also seeing more white people participating in protests than we saw for Civil Rights. We are not repeating history; we are living through something monumental.
But the appeal to law and order is still strong. Trump knows it and that’s why he says it. Law and order it is a rather brilliant political slogan. It allows the listener to put into it whatever they want. Does it mean you want to stop crime, protestors, stamp out civil rights? It can mean different things to different people and this is its power. It’s a malleable term.
HC: What do you think this all means for the working-class white ethnics that supported the law and order coalition? Do you think that is coming apart today?
TL: I don’t know if the coalition is falling apart or not. I am not an optimist by nature but when I look at the generational shift and I talk to students and I get phone calls from my relatives who want to know more about things they’ve never questioned, it’s hard not to be hopeful. George Floyd was a trigger to something clearly more. Young people today are armed with information about police budgets and abolition. Today there is a debate about these things and that would have been impossible a decade ago.
As a white kid growing up in Philly, I wasn’t reckoning with whiteness and white supremacy at a young age. I didn’t see things that way until later on. But these kids are wrestling with that a lot earlier. It seems that they are taking it to heart. Doesn’t mean they all are, because we know there are plenty of young white supremacists. But there seem to be more people thinking critically about whiteness and what that means. It’s a sign of how different our terrain is and how special this moment is.