The Suburban StrategyBreaking News
tags: racism, segregation, Philadelphia, suburban history
In many ways, Joe Biden resembles the type of suburban, middle-class white voter that shifted to him in droves in 2020. (In Delaware County he was favored more heavily than even Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.) And it’s no wonder: Delaware County borders Wilmington, Delaware, and Biden even shares the same ridiculous local accent. His political record is studded with the types of moderate achievements that could entice a former Romney or Reagan voter. Biden’s focus on anti-crime legislation, in the form of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994; on anti-gay legislation in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act; and his opposition to desegregation in the 1970s were all policies that have shaped American cities into the segregated, policed, repressive places we know today.
Throughout his career, Biden has walked a fine line, paying lip service to minority communities and inflating his civil rights record while, in the same breath, legislating decisively against them. This careful dance has won him a fifty-year tenure in national politics and the votes of moderates, liberals, and progressives alike. Now that he’s president, Biden is likely to project his politics of the suburbs across the country. It’s important to understand exactly what that means: who will prosper and, more important, who will suffer.
Delaware County is where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. My parents—a South African mother and Trinidadian father, both graduates of the University of Pennsylvania—purchased our first home in the 1990s in Yeadon, a Black town adjacent to the neighborhood of West Philadelphia. Yeadon was quiet and friendly, with small, conjoined houses and occasional colonial mansions where a sliver of upper-class families lived. A Tudor village stood in the center of town, housing a pizzeria, post office, and assorted mom-and-pop shops, many of them Black-owned. I learned to ride a bike in the alleyway behind our house, picked mulberries off a neighbor’s bush, and ate them in the shade of my friends’ backyards. I also remember the evening we got a phone call telling us that my friend’s mother had been murdered a few blocks away. Another night, coming back from a vacation, we found the window to our basement smashed in.
When I was in third grade we moved to Swarthmore, only twenty minutes southwest of Yeadon, but a world away. Nothing could prepare me for the culture shock we would experience there. As one of few immigrant families and even fewer Black families in the area, we lived a strange, isolated existence. Though the Historically Black Neighborhood of Swarthmore was established before the town itself, by African Americans who landed there during the Great Migration, Swarthmore was overwhelmingly white.
In 1958, the white Yarrow family attempted to sell their house to a Black family, in a deliberate attempt at desegregation. In response, the Swarthmore Friends Meeting sent a letter to the Yarrows: “We feel that you are deliberately depreciating the value of your neighbors’ real estate when you sell your home to colored people. . . . [We] beg you to reconsider your plan . . . and to withdraw from your apparent position of discrimination against white buyers.” Around the same time, in nearby Rutledge, a house burned down the night before the family of George T. Raymond, president of the NAACP in Chester, was scheduled to move in. Segregation was officially abolished in Swarthmore schools in 1939, but to date I have seen no evidence that the de facto segregation of housing has ended. Today, the town is roughly 85 percent white, with African Americans making up a tiny 5 percent of the population. (Yeadon’s demographics are basically the opposite: 90 percent Black and with a median income of roughly $54,000, half of Swarthmore’s.)
Race was at once visible and invisible in Swarthmore. There were rules governing how and where Black people could live, but racism itself was denied. I can’t count how many times I was told what Black people could do (sports, dancing, hanging out) and what we couldn’t (live in white areas, perform well in school, sing opera). When I was in the third grade, a boy with whom I’d been friendly brought in some trophies for “show and tell.” I approached the counter they were sitting on and started reading the plaques, admiring the many ribbons. As I reached for one, I heard his voice behind me. “Back off, Black girl,” he snarled. I walked back to my seat, stunned and crying.