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Philadelphia 'flash mobs': black mayor takes aim at black community

The crackdown on 'flash mobs' by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has put him in the center of a debate about how black leaders should respond to violence within their own community.

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Moreover, Nutter's strong language enables white society in America to downplay poverty as the root cause of the black community's problems, says Columbia University political scientist Frederick Harris, author of the upcoming book, "The Price of the Ticket: The Rise and Fall of Black Politics in the Age of Obama.” "If this discourse was led by Ronald Reagan, for instance, people would call him on his racism, but now that you have a black face to these explanations it gives it legitimacy," he says.

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Some point to Nutter's curfew and aggressive "stop-and-frisk" policy as evidence of a growing gap between poor and middle-class blacks that has been exacerbated by the poor economy. A federal lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in November, alleging that the searches, which Nutter began when he came into office, were violating the rights of blacks and Latinos who had done nothing wrong.

Indeed, some have questioned whether Nutter is really a mouthpiece for black Philadelphians. The mayor’s popularity has consistently fared better in white wards. Former Mayor John Street, Nutter’s predecessor, told a newspaper last year that Nutter was “not a black mayor ... just a mayor with dark skin.”

Calling out members of their own community hardly new among African-American leaders. At the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. DuBois, the author of "The Philadelphia Negro," criticized poor blacks for everything from bad eating habits to unkempt houses.

In a 2004 speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, famous Philadelphian Bill Cosby called out young black "knuckleheads" who he contended were undermining civil rights era gains for the black community.

President Obama has also talked about the problem of single parenthood in the black community, and even once admonished young black men to pull up their saggy pants.

"If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing – missing from too many lives and too many homes," Obama told a church in Chicago in his famous "Father's Day Speech" in 2008. "They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men."

Black leaders are torn between the need to call for personal responsibility and the apparent willingness by many whites and some black leaders to assume that poverty and the dysfunction it brings can only be alleviated by the individual, not greater society.

"The black community needs to take a great deal of responsibility for these kids who are flash-mobbing," says Phillip Jackson, the founder of the Million Father March in Chicago. "You can't stop a flash mob when they're 15, 16, 17, when they're committed to lifestyles and to the acts at that point. But when they're 2, 3, 4 and 5, you can train them away from that behavior, and you can make them into almost anything you want them to be, but we [as a society] don't make that investment."

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