Whitetown USA: 1968 book on the ‘silent majority’ of poor urban whites by Peter Binzen

Sitting with Whitetown USA author Peter Binzen and PlanPhilly Editor Matt Golas.

Prideful, working class white ethnic neighborhoods in cities have been ignored and poorly represented for at least a half century, goes a major theme of Peter Binzen’s 1968 Whitetown USA dissection. [Google Books here.]

Written by a former Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper reporter with whom I was thrilled to have lunch last month, the book attacks the principle that whites are a monolithic group of privilege. Binzen, a former education reported, focuses heavily on the school system in the book to tell a tale of why working class and even upwardly mobile middle class whites were opposed to affirmative action and other social welfare programs perceived to help blacks.

The first third of the book features the similarities of Whitetowns from cities across the country: white neighborhoods often with many recent immigrants that are working class, prideful of place, protective, provincial, conservative and often seen as bigoted. The rest dives deepest into Kensington, a decaying industrial corridor then and a decayed shell today, and its adjacent Fishtown, a smaller, more residential neighborhood where I now live.

As I often am eager to do, I wanted to share some of my favorite passages and thoughts from the soft cover copy I tore through:

  • “Already in 1888, James Bryce, in The American Commonwealth, was saying that ‘the government of cities is the one conspicuous failure of the United States.” He notes that immigrants, particularly the Irish, are unfairly used to blame for corruption, crime and filth there. (p. 17)
  • Immigrant Americans have always sought military life in disproportionate numbers. “Of the first one hundred thousand United States Army volunteers in 1917, no fewer than forty thousand were said to be Polish Americans.” The trend continued then during the Vietnam War. (p. 19)
  • Fascinating immigration controls, predating a 1965 law signed by President Johnson on Oct. 3, 1965 that returned decisions to individual merit rather than nationality quota. (p. 22)
  • An immigrant’s letter home with phrases like “Schools here are free for everyone.” (p. 24)
  • Machine politics fit immigration by giving neighborhood leaders a connection to taking care of their own. “As City Hall reformers installed computers and began accounting for every paper clip, they lost touch with the ‘little people’ in Whitetown and Blacktown.”(p. 26)
  • “[Working class urban whites] are the stepchildren of the industrial system. For Negroes, the true orphans of the system, they have scant sympathy left over.” (p. 35)
  • “In changing times, the Whitetowners oppose change.” (p. 36)
  • Pennsylvania constitutions in 1776 and 1790 called for locally-established schools for the poor but the mandate was ignored until the first such school opened in Philadelphia in 1818. Separate but (un)equal started early (p. 38)
  • In 1844, religious riots killed a dozen men and resulted in 50 burned homes and churches in Kensington over a dispute over allowing the option to use a Catholic bible in public schools (rather than just a Protestant version) may have set the course for the Catholic School system.
  • Into the late 19th century, school books had comically cartoonish capitalistic propaganda. (p. 42)
  • Landmark James S. Coleman study in 1966 found little difference in between white and nonwhite schools. Class, less than race, was seen as a true gulf. (p. 54)
  • “The whites are prouder and more quiescent, the blacks are more concentrated.” Though future decades would disrupt this trend, in 1968, Binzen was showing poor white neighborhoods were in worse shape than poor black neighborhoods. (p. 56)
  • “They don’t expect help and they don’t get it.” (p. 62)
  • A popularly cited 1966 op-ed giving reason for affirmative action push back among unions, whose members wanted their sons to follow them into their positions: “Don’t we all discriminate? Which of us when it comes to a choice will not choose a son over all others?” (p. 63)
  • In 1968, Kensington was 99.7 percent white, though the specific boundaries were not shared. (p. 81)
  • “Philadelphia lacks Boston’s brains, New York’s bounce, Chicago’s brass and San Francisco’s press agent….” Louis I. Khan has said Philly has ‘a character of personality, not impersonality.” (p. 84)
  • “In 1960, Fishtowners successfully routed from houses or apartments two Negro families, two Puerto Rican families, one dark-skinned Portugeuse family and a Cherokee Indian from North Carolina. In the fall of 1966, they joined in five days of rioting against a Negro family that moved into a near-by Kensington section.” … “Kensington is more a state of mind than a geographic entity; its boundaries shift as housing patterns shift.” (p. 86)
  • “There is probably no city in the known world,” wrote a visitor to Philadelphia in 1842, “where dislike amounting to hatred of the coloured population prevails more than in the city of brotherly love.” (p. 89)
  • In 1891 a businessman wrote in a pamphlet called Kensington: “A city within a city, nestling upon the bosom of the placid Delaware, filled to the brim with enterprise, dotted with factories so numerous that the rising smoke obscures the sky, the hum of industry is heard in every corner of its broad expanse. A happy and contended people, enjoying plenty in a land of plenty. Populated by brave men, fair women and a hardy generation of young blood that will take the reins when the fathers have passed away. All hail, Kensington! A credit to the continent, a crowning glory to the city.” (p. 93)
  • “Just when Kensington seemed to be going down for the count, World War II came along. Kensington revived. Its shipyard expanded enormously. Its factories were worked overtime. Its biggest and most famous firm, the Stetson Hat Company, employed almost five thousand men and women and maintained a hospital for them…. It seems clear now, though, that the seeds of Kensington’s destruction were sown in the war it supported so spiritedly. Military service widened the horizons of young Kensingtonians.” (p. 96)
  • Whitetowns need help but they won’t accept it. (p. 103)
  • “Indeed, funerals are important social events in Kensington and undertakers, along with taproom owners, are among its most affluent citizens. (p. 107)
  • “Kensington’s intolerance is so savage because its people are so insecure.” (110)
  • An educated Fishtown resident does nothing while his neighbors riot around a Negro family moving in. (112)
  • Philadelphia School Board of Education had refused standardized testing until 1967. (146)
  • For nearly 30 years until 1963, the school board was effectively run by its business manager, who had a tenth grade education.
  • Philadelphia public school standards were high into the 1930s. Students were held back if they failed until they reached 14, when they could be kicked out. In the 1930s, reforms raised the compulsory school age to 17, with some exceptions, and as the great Migration of Southern blacks hit Philadelphia, the system was inundated with kids behind in schooling. (166)
  • Central High School moved in 1939 from a ‘mid-city neighborhood’ turning black to move to a white neighborhood near LaSalle College (which is now a black area), and in the 1950s, Northeast High also moved to a white neighborhood, pressured by alumni. (168)
  • Paul Goodman has said: “any literate and well-intentioned grownup knows enough to teach a small child a lot.” Goodman and others were advocating for smaller, neighborhood schools focused on subjects — which sounds like the charter school movement of today. (183)
  • “There were 28,044 vacant buildings and 15,604 vacant lots in the city as of July 31, 1969. The number of vacant buildings had more than doubled in three years.” (185)
  • “Say what you will about the public schools, they have staying power. Year after year, they do their business, whatever it may be, for good or evil. The system was built to last.” (187)
  • The word ‘changing’ in Kensington meant getting blacker in 1968. Now, it means getting ‘whiter.’ (190)
  • A ‘Richard D. Hanusey’ was the city’s best school administrator, Binzen writes (192)
  • Troubled kids aren’t reached until they are too far gone. (207)
  • “E.E. Cummings said that before you can do without punctuation, you must learn to use it perfectly. The same goes for discipline.” (214)
  • By 1970, getting a big city school teacher appointment was no reason to celebrate. In 1940, it was. (217)
  • “They give back what they get. There are teachers who teach thirty years and retire. And there are teachers who teach one year thirty times and retire.” (220)
  • Poorer black and white parents are more similar in their wants for their children’s education: conservative and discipline. (225)
  • Binzen describes a school administrator who goes into a community meeting completely unaware of the distrust the neighborhood has for any authority so is unprepared to defend a position. (232)
  • “It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the entire structure of Catholic education in Philadelphia — the nation’s fourth largest diocese and the one most fervently committed to the proposition that every Catholic child should attend a Catholic school — rests on such shaky underpinnings.” Bingo, technically illegal, is a large fundraising tool. (239) Though, bingo seems to play much less of a role in Catholic education today.
  • A large portion of Catholic church funding in Philadelphia came from Bingo: “It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the entire structure of the Catholic education in Philadelphia — the nation’s fourth largest diocese and the one most fervently committed to the proposition that every Catholic child should attend a Catholic school — rests on such shaky underpinnings. “(239)
  • Why Whitetowners like Catholic education: “Unexciting, un-stimulating, anti-intellectual”(240)
  • A prescient phrase: In 1968 “Catholics now hold firm control over most branches of the city government, and they will probably retain it until Negroes take over.” (244) Stereotyped as ‘social outcasts.’ (243)
  • “As late Jesuit editor Paul L. Blakely said: ‘The first duty of every Catholic father to the public school is to keep his children out of it.” (245)
  • Of the American Catholic Church, Denis Brogan said: “in no western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers and strength of organization, it is so powerful.” (246)
  • “Philadelphia parochial schools pride themselves on their handwriting instruction. Their pupils learn to write very neatly, their letters well rounded and carefully formed. It is said that you can distinguish a parochial-school child from a public-school pupil by comparing their writing.” (254)
  • Binzen transcribed recordings of a debate on integration at a Polish Catholic school, featuring starkly honest assessments on civil rights, largely focusing on blacks. (261)
  • In 1965, the Archdiocese was boasting of an expanding enrollment and support. Two years later, it sought government aid for the first time. (269)
  • In 1968, Pennsylvania became the first state to authorize state aid to non-public schools. (270)
  • In the mid 1960s, as change was coming with a new school board and superintendent, an already disaffected principal had called the school district like an ‘arthritic turtle.’ Binzen calls Mark Shedd one of the most promising superintendents. (273)
  • More on how a controversial school district business manager had run the school district. (275)
  • After Sputnik, legislation in 1958 for the first time offered federal funding to support basic education. (277)
  • New superintendent Mark Shedd chased federal funding and outperformed all other school districts. (283)
  • The difference between reform in City Hall and the school district: “The contrast is that City Hall had a political mandate. This gave momentum for reform. The schools don’t have it.” (287)
  • Nov. 17, 1967: a bloody battle between police and then commissioner Frank Rizzo and black students (288)
  • The late 1960s changes in the School District were called the “most dramatic revolution in a city school system in the postwar period.” (294)
  • There was a movement by black students to rename Ben Franklin High School after Malcolm X, the movement was rebuffed by a school board trying to gain support in white communities. (297)
  • Of education reformers whose children don’t go to public schools: “In a great many instances those people and groups most vocally supporting change are safely outside the battle and would be unaffected by it.” (298)
  • “In housing and jobs, as well as in education, black gains are made in competition not with WASP liberals [who cheer the change] but with lower-class and lower-middle-class Irish, Italians, Poles and Jews.” (298)
  • White-collar workers waste more time in their cubicles than blue collar workers in their stations, a study shows. (299)
  • “The lower class whites especially are a closed people moving in tunnels.” (304)
  • Education will either make or break cities. (305)