American Sociological Association

Section on Race, Gender, and Class

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events

June-August 2018

A Rip in Philadelphia's Cosmopolitan Canopy

Elijah Anderson, Yale University

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Black people now inhabit all levels of the Philadelphia class and occupational structure. They attend the best schools, pursue the professions of their choosing, and occupy various positions of power, privilege, and prestige. But for black people navigating the city's public spaces, in the shadows lurks the specter of the urban ghetto. Stereotypes associated with the iconic ghetto are always in the background, shaping Philadelphians' conception of the anonymous black person as well as the circumstances of blacks in all walks of life.

That's even when they're in Center City's "cosmopolitan canopy," typically an island of interracial civility located in a sea of segregated living. Here is where there is a bustling exchange of residents, who travel back and forth between the suburbs and the downtown, at all times of the day, but especially during midday and the rush hour. Within Center City, smaller "canopies" include the Reading Terminal Market and Rittenhouse Square, as well as still smaller ones, such as local hospital waiting rooms and food courts, and of course the local Starbucks. These canopies work in tandem to create a synergistic effect, and thus help to make Center City a "cosmopolitan zone." On good days, the Center City area is a civil space, where of all kinds of people appear to get along, enjoying easy interracial and inter-ethnic conversation, and at times, they may even express a degree of conviviality.

Anonymous black people, especially young males, based on their strong association with the urban ghetto, are often held suspect, and prejudged as dangerous and crime-prone. Unless they display emblems — a suit, a tie — that attest otherwise, they are easily viewed as iconic negroes from the ghetto, places that are stereotyped by many outsiders as drug-infested, persistently poor, and full of "no count," uneducated people.

Thus, when black people patronize the local downtown businesses, including coffee shops, jewelry stores, and taxicabs, they risk being lumped together with the lowly, "the homeless," or people "from the ghetto" — people seen as not deserving of respect that ordinary white people can take for granted. Here, the onus is on the black person to disprove this presumption; when this lowly status is not disavowed quickly enough, trouble may erupt.

Thus, as black people move about anonymously through the canopy that is Center City, especially when they are young and male, they do so with a deficit of credibility compared to their white counterparts. They are burdened by their fellow citizens with this distrust until they can prove their credibility as law-abiding citizens. Most of the others making up the canopy display what Erving Goffman called "social gloss," or are polite enough to black people to their face, but all black people know that they are essentially on "thin ice" and generally understand not to "push their luck" by getting "out of place." Doing so will likely provoke the dreaded "N-word moment," that moment of acute disrespect, most typically delivered at the hands of some ethnocentric white person, who quickly draws the color line in an effort to "put the black person in his place."

This is roughly what happened in the April Starbucks incident, when two young African American men who grew up in an impoverished black community, but who are now upwardly mobile businessmen, were waiting at the 18th Street Starbucks for the arrival of a colleague for a business meeting.

As they sat quietly, one of the baristas began to scrutinize them. When one of the young men asked for the code to use the restroom, this was evidently too much. Within minutes, the barista summoned the Philadelphia police, who arrived moments later to arrest the young men for what was essentially "sitting in Starbucks while black."

The other Starbucks customers, most of whom were white, rose to defend the young black men, complaining about the actions being taken and taking cellphone videos — at least one of which was posted online and made the news.

In these circumstances, the black men felt humiliated, deflated, and acutely disrespected. This experience is all too common for black people operating in what they know as "white space," though they don't expect this sort of thing to happen in spaces they perceive to be cosmopolitan canopies. In fact, after this "N-word moment" the young men discovered that the Starbucks was not so much a canopy, but perhaps an exclusive white space. They know, as many black people do, that the way you tell a white space is by the frequency of the "N-word moments" you experience there.

I've argued in my book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, that the "N-word moment," the moment of acute disrespect based on blackness, is the new American color line, which can be drawn out of the blue, but especially when the black person is navigating the white space. When these moments happen under the canopy, the canopy reacts almost immediately. It often does this with a gush of gloss, intended to cover up or even to repair what just happened. The gloss deflects scrutiny of such incidents for the time being, allowing the canopy a chance to recover. As it does so, things return to normal, while awaiting the next such moment.

Elijah Anderson holds the William K. Lanman Professorship in Sociology at Yale University, where he teaches and directs the Urban Ethnography Project. Among his recent works are Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (1999, W.W. Norton) and The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life (2012, W. W. Norton), and the forthcoming, Black in White Space.

A version of this article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 31, 2018.

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