In the 1970s, Philadelphia, the fourth-largest city in America, stood on the brink of massive social change. The city’s black population was increasingly rapidly, just as many of its manufacturing concerns were shutting down.
As white flight swept many older sections of the city, the only part of Philadelphia still adding population was the formerly agricultural Far Northeast. This area was a redoubt inside the city limits for white working-to-middle class people, who had evacuated their old neighborhoods as African-American and Puerto Rican families began moving in.
For residents of the Far Northeast—who numbered 500,000 in 1970 and were more than 90 percent white—and the other white working-class neighborhoods that remained, the demographic and economic changes were daunting. In this context of hyper-segregation and sweeping neighborhood change, they found a champion in bombastic police commissioner and later Mayor Frank Rizzo (1920-1991).
Born and raised in an Italian-American South Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood, Rizzo rose rapidly through the police ranks, aided by his tough reputation as a cop’s cop. As head of the police department, he became known for brutal “law-and-order” tactics that pitted him against civil-rights activists. He got attention for hyperbolic statements—“[The Black Panthers] should be strung up. I mean, within the law. This is actual warfare”—and macho posturing, including an incident where he stuck a nightstick in his tuxedo cummerbund and left a fancy dinner to quell a riot.
Although a Democrat, Rizzo endorsed Richard Nixon’s re-election as president. For historian Timothy Lombardo, Rizzo’s time as police commissioner and then mayor exemplifies a distinct form of right-wing ideology in the latter half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, which came to the national stage in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. In his new book Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, Lombardo, a professor at the University of South Alabama, details the social conditions that gave rise to Rizzo and his subsequent political decline as Philadelphia’s white population shrank. (Rizzo’s form of identity politics became clearest in 1978, when he tried to run for a third term and urged his supporters to “vote white.”)
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
There have been a lot of comparisons made between Rizzo and Donald Trump, including one I wrote myself. Beyond the obvious dissimilarities—Rizzo was a working-class guy—what are the points of similarity?
I think it’s the way they appeal to people, and their populist rhetoric. There’s just the fact that liberals hate both of them, which I think matters a great deal.
Rizzo was, very much like the president, unpolished. His verbal gaffes were every other day, and he often did things that, much as we see now, you kind of think, “Something has to give here, he can’t keep going like this.” But every time he would do something that angered liberals, his people would cheer him on even more. That is one of the things they share.
One of the more famous incidents I detail in the book is the polygraph test that Rizzo failed in 1973. But his people don’t see him as a liar. One guy writes him and calls [the papers] “the lousy liberal press bastards” who are out to get the working people. I think Trump supporters are doing the same thing.
Rizzo supporters weren’t united by religious identity or economic philosophy. It was much more about identity politics.
Exactly. What they are doing is playing identity politics. It’s so frequently liberals and the left who are charged with playing identity politics, but that’s exactly what we are seeing with Frank Rizzo and with Trump.
When they actually try to do things that are aimed at helping blue-collar economic situations, they are very bad at it. Rizzo would talk a big game about what he was going to do for white ethnic rights, but he was doing that as Philly was transitioning away from a traditional blue-collar manufacturing sector. But the very fact that they saw Frank Rizzo as “one of us,” for him to be in the mayor’s office was a vicarious triumph. Today, to see someone so reviled by liberals and the left be in the White House is a vicarious triumph for a lot of people.
For those outside Philadelphia, why should Frank Rizzo’s legacy still matter?
A lot of the things about Frank Rizzo were only true of postwar Philadelphia. He was Philadelphia through and through. But he is also a symbol of a broader political change that was happening in the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of a consciously ethnic and consciously working-class politics distinct from those of the late 19th century or the 1930s.
This is what I call “blue-collar conservatism,” which I argue is one of the many competing conservatisms in postwar America. One of the [distinguishing traits] is that, to blue-collar conservatives, the welfare state isn’t inherently bad. It can be very useful so long as the beneficiaries of the welfare state are “deserving.”
Key parts of the book revolve around how the blue-collar white ethnics I write about defined “deserving.” They did that through this language of class. Both Rizzo and the people who loved him were taking their class background as identity politics to obfuscate the prominent racial discourse around big issues of the 1960s and 1970s, like riots, school desegregation, and police abuses.
Or urban renewal: In the broader context of American history, it’s largely deemed a failure, and understood through its negative effects. But for working-class whites in places like Philadelphia, some of their same organizations that were trying to defeat public housing and complaining about all these liberal programs were still looking for more public funding for urban renewal for their programs. As long as it helps them, they are very much on board with it. That’s true for education as well.
This is not the sort of conservatism we see coming from the tax revolt in California or from libertarian think tanks. This is populist enough to see the value in state spending and taxation, provided the beneficiaries are people like them.
A big part of this would seem to be that this was a time of increasing economic insecurity, with the decline of factory jobs and the shrinking tax base. Then aid to cities from the federal government began shrinking too. The white working-class reaction to the growing African-American population seems partly to be the result of a what they saw as a zero-sum competition for fewer resources.
I reject what is often posited as either racial resentment or economic anxiety. Why can’t it be both? Economic anxiety is often expressed as racial resentment. The people I’m writing about are not economically secure. The backdrop of the book is the urban crisis. That wasn’t just about the urban uprisings of the 1960s, but about the very real economic decline that cities faced in the 1970s. This is an era of immense economic change and immense economic anxiety.
The prism that a lot of these people saw these changes through was that anyone else’s gain was their loss. I reject that as being true, but I can also understand why they came to that conclusion. Resources actually were tighter than they were before.
The fear of economic decline is a thread that runs through the entire book. Jefferson Cowie has argued that the 1970s was as bad as the Great Depression for working people. We often dismiss that and don’t take those concerns seriously, especially when the people hurting economically are racist or are fighting civil rights. But those things go hand in hand more often than we think.
The heart of the Rizzo story seems to be extreme neighborhood segregation. Again and again [in the book], we see him campaigning in the segregated white neighborhoods of the city. In his 1970s mayoral campaigns, he didn’t even really go to black neighborhoods. Maybe a candidate like Rizzo depends on extreme racial segregation and polarization.
Absolutely. The book doesn’t get to Rizzo right away. First, I try to show the reification, and cementing, of Philadelphia’s racial boundaries. You have the opening of Northeast Philadelphia, with the tacit and at times explicit promise that it will remain all white. Developers in Northeast Philly are very open and honest about the fact that they don’t feel they can sell to African-American residents because whites won’t move into these areas or buy these homes if African-Americans are moving there.
At the same time, programs like urban renewal are fixing up white neighborhoods but razing African-American neighborhoods. And while all that is going on, Philly is experiencing an influx of African Americans from the South that is only slightly lower than what it was during its height in World War II. All those things happen at once.
What we end up getting is North Philadelphia, which becomes the center of Philadelphia’s urban crisis, this place of incredible spatialized poverty where houses that had once been working- and middle-class, single-occupancy homes are being cut up into apartments for three, four, five families. Then there’s Northeast Philly, which by the 1970s is more than 90 percent white in a city that is increasingly African American. It is less spatially developed, with more green space—the suburban idyll. And these are the people who see Rizzo as coming to protect them and protect their investment.
Rizzo was as much a product of Philadelphia’s spatial politics as he was someone who exploited them. He was a larger-than-life character who said and did things that made him stand out among very similar people in different cities at the same time [such as Chicago’s Richard Daley or Los Angeles’ Sam Yorty]. What he was appealing to was something that whites who were protecting particular urban spaces across the country were looking for. He filled that role for them, that role of protector.