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Reviewed by:
  • Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia and Populist Politics by Timothy J. Lombardo
  • Kenneth J. Heineman
Timothy J. Lombardo. Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia and Populist Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. 314. Notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $37.50.

Despite their ideological differences, establishment Democrats and Republicans agreed that he was profane, vindictive, and a party switcher who did not represent the true values of the political organization he had usurped. Leaders in both parties vowed to destroy him while the political cartoon strip Doonesbury mocked him as a racist boor unworthy of the political office he held. Worse, his critics charged, he colluded with unseen forces to spy on his rivals and sabotage their efforts to bring him to justice. Most infuriating, it seemed that the news media's sneering attacks only made him more popular among white working-class voters. Yes, Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo (1920–1991) was one of a kind.

Frank Rizzo, as historian Timothy Lombardo argues, embodied working-class ethnic Philadelphia: a place of stable neighborhoods where high school-dropouts could earn a good living and support a family. He joined the Philadelphia Police Department, working his way up through the ranks. Rizzo was an aggressive police officer in an age when no interrogation room went without a thick city phonebook directory that served as a memory aid in the questioning of suspects.

Lombardo follows the well-trod path made by numerous historians, journalists, political scientists, and sociologists interested in "white-ethnic backlash" politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia have received their due. Vincent Cannato and Paul Lyons, respectively, wrote exceptional studies of twentieth-century New York and Philadelphia. Lyons was particularly adept at interpreting the mindset of Rizzo and his upper-class liberal critics without being overly censorious of either. [End Page 300]

In Blue-Collar Conservatism, Lombardo begins well with an anecdote about Rizzo, setting the stage for what could have been a rollicking tale of crime, corruption, dysfunction, and poverty. While Lombardo delivers on Rocky Balboa, the balance of the book lacks a human dimension. The white working class is an often-undifferentiated sociological category. White Philadelphia workers appear to be racists with an irrational fear of violent crime. Rizzo, it seems, embodied white working-class racism as much as he drew upon racism to advance himself politically.

While all this may be accurate, it would be helpful to have violent crime statistics over the 1960s and 1970s for Philadelphia and the United States. Was the fear of being a victim of violent crime irrational? And what of the fact that African Americans were (and are) the most likely among city dwellers to be the victims of violent crime? How does that that fact fit into the framework of the racist backlash against crime in the 1960s and 1970s?

It would also be helpful to consider that for most white, working-class Americans their home was both their only asset and their chief source of debt. Crime impacted negatively on home values regardless of the ethnicity or race of the property owner. Additionally, as Christian Appy observed, working-class whites were more likely to be injured at work or sent to Vietnam than the upper-class white liberals who held them in so little regard.

America in the 1960s and 1970s experienced a revolution in race relations; one that created bitterness and backlash. None of that is in question. But the United States also experienced a cultural war and a level of class conflict seldom seen before or since. Culture, class, and race are useful tools of social analysis if each receives its due.

Kenneth J. Heineman
Angelo State University
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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-2109
Print ISSN
0031-4528
Pages
pp. 300-301
Launched on MUSE
2019-04-11
Open Access
No
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