MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up later, the controversy over Ken Burns' new film about World War II. But first, race and crime. Those are combustible issues under any circumstances. But in Philadelphia, they're adding to the intensity of an already volatile mayoral campaign. Five men are competing in the Democratic primary tomorrow: two members of Congress, a businessman, a state lawmaker and a former city councilman.
Politics have long been a contact sport in Philadelphia, but this campaign is taking place against the backdrop of a terrible increase in the city's homicide rate, even as the number of murders in other major cities is declining.
Joining us now to talk about this are two veteran political observers. Elmer Smith is a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News. He joins us from his home in New Jersey. Hi, Elmer.
Mr. ELMER SMITH (Columnist, Philadelphia Daily News): Welcome - how are you, I should say. Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: I'm very well, thanks. And Professor Thaddeus Mathis of Temple University's Center for African-American Research and Public Policy. He joins us from Audio Post in Philadelphia. Welcome, Professor Mathis. Thank you for joining us.
Professor THADDEUS MATHIS (Center for African-American Research and Public Policy, Temple University): Good morning.
MARTIN: Three out of four Philadelphians say that crime is the biggest issue. How bad is it, Elmer Smith?
Mr. SMITH: Well, anytime you have more than one homicide a day, crime is a serious issue. But there's a couple of ways to box it. I think if you look at it in the context of overall crime in the city of Philadelphia, overall crime in the city of Philadelphia has been down. Major crimes in Philadelphia are down over the last four, five years. And if you look at this administration in the last seven to eight years, they went over 400 homicides last year for the first time.
There have been - the previous two administrations have had averages of close to 400 a year. During the Rendell year, the eight years of Rendell, he averaged almost 400 homicides a year.
MARTIN: So let me understand it. You're saying that major crimes overall are down, but homicides are continuing to be a problem, or they're escalating?
Mr. SMITH: Homicides are escalating over the last - over a period of the last five or six years. But the eight-year period of this administration compared to the eight-year period of the Goode administration and the eight-year period in the Rendell administration and the eight-year period of the Rizzo administration have seen, on average, fewer homicides than those administrations. I'm sorry, I said the Goode administration. I mean Rendell and Rizzo.
MARTIN: So Professor Mathis, why do you think this is so much a focus now? Obviously, well, these numbers are terrible, right? I mean, this is - just a murder a day is a lot. And is it - what is it that you think that seems to have just made people feel that they're fed up, that this just - that they are at a breaking point?
Prof. MATHIS: Well, I think there are a couple of interlocking factors. One, there's a tremendously large educational problem. About 50 percent of ninth graders have dropped out of school before grade 12. The joblessness, the lack of hope, the constant availability of guns and other dangerous weapons, the disinvestment in many of the inner city neighborhoods - all, I think, conspire to create the current situation.
MARTIN: One proposal seems to have become a focus of the campaign. Former councilman Michael Nutter has proposed a plan to allow city police to stop and frisk residents in high crime neighborhoods for weapons. This is a technique that's been used in other cities, notably in New York. What's been the reaction to this proposal, Elmer Smith, by the voters, by other candidates, and does the reaction differ along racial lines? Elmer, you first, and then I want to hear from Professor Mathis.
Mr. SMITH: I'm not sure it differs as much along racial lines as the recent furor seems to indicate. The first that - I've noticed there's a local anti-crime activist in the city named Balachi(ph), you know, who first proposed essentially the stop and frisk about a year ago. The police commissioner opposed it, even though the two of them are close. And it got a lot of positive reaction from people in the black community at that point.
As people began to look at it, I think the difference with this particular proposal is that it talks about, essentially, declaring something that has been characterized as martial law in certain neighborhoods. And I think the whole question of targeting black communities for this kind of enforcement raises a lot of concerns in the community.
MARTIN: Sometimes elites feel differently about it than people who are actually experiencing, you know, the phenomenon. And Professor Mathis, I wanted to know whether you think that there might be a difference between the way the - which isn't to delegitimize their point of view, it's just simply to say that sometimes few who are experiencing the crime are more willing to tolerate extreme measures than other people who aren't.
And I just wondered, Professor Mathis, whether you think that this proposal is being treated skeptically in the neighborhoods, or are people open to it, interested in it or embracing it?
Prof. MATHIS: Well, I think there's a lot of ambivalence about it. On the one hand, there certainly is a lot of desperation. People want something done. On the other hand, there's a racial context within which this proposal has to be viewed. The African-American community is very much more suspicious of police activity than the general community. The further away you get from the sites where this violence is taking place is - I think, the support lessens for a proposal like this.
The experience in other large cities is that African-Americans are disproportionately entrapped in this stop and frisk type campaign. And so that's always a concern. Sometimes people start off supporting it, and then the third or fourth time their children are picked up by police their support has pretty much disappeared.
MARTIN: But they're also disproportionately victims, right?
Prof. MATHIS: Yes.
MARTIN: African-Americans are disproportionately the victims. How is that playing?
Prof. MATHIS: And that's the concern. That and the history of poor police community relations creates a greater disparity between the African-American and the general community on this question. About half of the African-Americans support it - a little more than half, about 52 percent. And about close to 70 percent of the white community supports it.
MARTIN: Now, in a recent debate, I'm sorry, a recent debate…
Mr. SMITH: As Professor Mathis pointed out, they are supporting - what they're supporting or not supporting is a concept. Once this thing gets into practice, I think we'll have a much better sense of whether or not the degree to which it is supported. The other thing is that, as you pointed out, crime is the number one issue. But no more than nine months ago there was a poll taken that - about nine, 10 months ago there was a poll taken in the city of Philadelphia where amongst black communities, crime was the number three issue.
This, sort of, buttresses the point that Professor Mathis was making a little bit earlier. The number issue there was schools, and then economic development, where crime was the number one issue then, even in white communities. It's an odd paradox?
MARTIN: Interesting. That is interesting. Speaking of that fact - and Mr. Nutter, Michael Nutter was the person who has been most associated with the stop and frisk proposal. In a recent debate, Congressman Chaka Fattah essentially called him out. He said that - he chastised Mr. Nutter for saying - having to repeatedly identify himself as African-American.
In essence, he was - I don't know whether you read it that way, but some people interpreted it as him saying, or calling him out for not being black enough. How are people reacting to that? Do people think he went too far? And, Professor Mathis, is this new for - usually, when we think about racial conflict, we think of it as being between races, of persons of different background. Is this a new thing for there are racial, sort of, conflict to be intra-racial?
Prof. MATHIS: Well, we're in a different stage of, sort of, race relations in the city at this point, this postmodern period they're talking about. One of the things that's happening is people are attempting to activate their bases. It's felt that Mr. Nutter has - his support in the African-American community across this city is less extensive than some of the other African-American candidates.
And, I think this was an attempt on Mr. Fattah's part to surface that issue. It's felt that since Mr. Nutter has a fairly widespread support among the white community, it was an attempt to characterize him as the candidate of the white community.
MARTIN: Elmer Smith, how do you think it's playing? How do you think that comment is playing? Or is it just one of those things people think, you know, heat of the campaign, things gets said?
Mr. SMITH: I don't think it's playing very well. I don't know that it's done very much at all to energize Mr. Fattah's base. And if anything, it has sort of energized the - Michael Matter's base. So it seems to me that the backlash from it is probably going to be more potent that would ever benefit that he got from it in the beginning.
MARTIN: Elmer Smith, would you talk a little bit more about something you'd mention earlier? That there are other issues in the campaign that are of concern. Are they still being talked about, or have they all been eclipsed by the issue of crime?
Mr. SMITH: There are these other issues, and I think Professor Mathis made - did a good job of bringing those to the table for our discussion a little bit earlier. But a lot of people are looking even at the crime issue in those terms, that if you looked at the proposals that any of these candidates have, even as they talk about crime, they're talking about improving schools. They're talking about creating more jobs.
I think the Fattah campaign, more than any other, is targeting this sort of tale of two cities reality that gets between the have-nots and the haves in this city, which is a probably that is occurring across the country. I think his campaign is focused on that a little bit more. But clearly, while the schools are improving, the need for them to improve even more the drop out rate - while it's been relatively steady, is still unconscionable, as far as I'm concerned. And the joblessness is an increasing problem in this city.
MARTIN: We're down to our last couple seconds, and I wanted to ask each of you quickly to say is there a sense of hopefulness about this election? I understand it's just the Democratic primary, but there's only one Republican candidate, and he's not as well known. So it's pretty much thought that this is the election. Do people have a sense of hope that however the choice is that he will be able to achieve progress on any of these issues? Elmer Smith and then Professor Mathis?
Mr. SMITH: I think there are good candidates in the race, almost anyone of them. In my estimation, I have to say, honestly, I'm concerned about the ability of Tom Knox to handle much of the business of the city. Other than that, I think either of these candidates can probably carry the ball.
MARTIN: Okay. And Professor Mathis?
Prof. MATHIS: Yes. I think the crop of candidates is not the problem. I think there is a lot of general skepticism given the national situation, that whoever is elected is going to have a tough time handling the more fundamental problems.
MARTIN: All right. Thank you so much. That was Thaddeus Mathis, Ph.D. at Temple University, professor of social administration and Elmer Smith, a metro columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News. Thank you both gentlemen for being here.
(Soundbite of music)
Prof. MATHIS: Thank you.
Mr. SMITH: Thank you.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
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