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  • Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love
  • Guian McKee
Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love. By James Wolfinger (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. xii plus 318 pp.).

Long before it became a critical swing state, Pennsylvania was a bastion of the “Reagan Democrats,” working class ethnic whites who swung their allegiance [End Page 466] from the Democratic to Republican parties. James Wolfinger’s Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love joins a growing body of historiography that traces the origins of such shifts not to the supposed excesses of the 1960s but to racially-based fractures in the New Deal coalition of the 1930s and 1940s. Focusing on the Philadelphia region, Wolfinger explores the interplay of racial and economic change with political ideology and coalition building. In Philadelphia, he maintains, racial conflicts over housing and jobs severely weakened the New Deal interracial coalition almost from its start. Wolfinger’s most original contribution, however, is his demonstration that many state and local Republican politicians recognized such divisions in the Democratic party and sought to exacerbate them.

Following a concise account of Philadelphia’s racial, ethnic, and political divisions prior to the New Deal, Wolfinger assesses the rise of the CIO and the growing activism of the Communist Party in Philadelphia during the 1930s. The latter organization remained relatively small, but Wolfinger demonstrates that, like the CIO, it provided at least a limited platform for class-based organizing. In these organizations, Wolfinger finds the core of a short-lived interracial coalition that transcended race and ethnicity to form political bonds around the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet as Wolfinger notes, the New Deal coalition never actually triumphed in Pennsylvania: Democrats held the state governorship for just one term in the late 1930s, and the Philadelphia region remained under Republican control.

African American voters, though, moved decisively towards the Democrats during the 1930s. This led some Pennsylvania Republicans to experiment with explicit and implicit racial appeals to whites. Initially, the party as a whole resisted such efforts in hopes of reestablishing blacks’ traditional Republican loyalties. As African Americans grew more assertive in demanding government redress of discrimination, the Republicans became more open to racial strategies. World War II, Wolfinger argues, brought the racial approach to the fore. Bitter racial struggles over wartime public housing and defense jobs produced lasting tensions, and the actions of the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) became a source of grievance among “Euro-Americans” (even though it proved only marginally effective at integrating Philadelphia-area war industries). These elements came together in the 1944 Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) strike. Wolfinger provides the most thorough analysis of this event yet written. PTC, the main transit company in Philadelphia, employed no African American drivers. In 1943, the Philadelphia NAACP protested this employment structure and appealed the case to the FEPC, which ordered the company to promote black workers into driver positions. When PTC moved to implement the FEPC order (with the hope of undermining the CIO-affiliated Transport Workers Union), white workers walked out with the tacit support of company management and the Republican-controlled city government and police force. The strike immediately crippled defense production in Philadelphia, and President Roosevelt placed PTC under the control of the Secretary of War. Threatened with the loss of draft exemptions, PTC workers soon ended their walkout. Yet the political damage had been done. Euro-American whites, especially Irish- and Italian-Americans, concluded that the federal government [End Page 467] had intervened in a local dispute on behalf of African Americans and against their interests. Wolfinger concludes that “in the wake of the strike, conservatives found it easy to connect federal power, black rights, and electoral support of the Roosevelt administration” (170). Irish-American and Italian-American support for FDR fell from 58 and 60 percent respectively in 1940 to 43 percent each in 1944. Roosevelt only narrowly carried Pennsylvania.

Building on the PTC case, the final chapters of Philadelphia Divided explore the postwar terrain of white suburbanization and urban deindustrialization, along with the efforts of Republicans to link the racial fears...


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pp. 466-469
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