Follow on Twitter @DanielDenvir
Philadelphia Magazine just published an article by Robert Huber titled "Being white in Philly: In a city that is largely poor and segregated white people have become afraid to say anything at all about race. Here's what's not being said."
No, it is not an Onion-esque parody of Philadelphia's most white-bread journalistic institution, a magazine that seemingly hired Gene Marks just because he wrote the jaw-droppingly offensive article “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” for Forbes.
But before I continue, I must first disable the story's booby trap, a defense built into its very DNA: the idea that "in so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist."
Huber is not a brave man, and his premise is totally false. People will only think you "simply discussing race" is racist if you, like Huber, treat black people like inscrutable extraterrestrials whose moral shortcomings might be responsible for their own poverty.
The reality is that many black people frequently talk about race and racism. And really, white people do too--sometimes intelligently, sometimes not so much. To the extent that whites do not discuss race more it is because they do not want to address important pieces of context like, say, history (see Louis CK).
Indeed, I'm a white guy who writes about race and frequently talk to black Philadelphians--and often, gasp, about race. Black sources have never protested frank questions about race for articles I write about poverty and educational inequity, police brutality and mass incarceration, or neighborhood segregation and (yes, largely black) gun violence.
Huber's idea that white people are uniquely aggrieved because they are muzzled in discussions of race (why are they allowed to say the n-word and not me) is not a new one. It's more that Huber wants to have a particular sort of conversation about race. Namely, he "yearn[s] for....the freedom to speak to my African-American neighbors about...how the inner city needs to get its act together." Like, you know, an arguably racist conversation about race.
Yes, that's certainly not the sort of conversation about race most blacks or sensible whites (not to mention unmentioned Asians or Latinos) want to have.
Huber seems to feel that his holding the door for black people at Wawa and being "overly polite," an example he weirdly invokes a few times, is some sort of pathetic expression of white guilt. It's not clear how Huber convinced his editor that personal hangups better discussed with a psychotherapist were "journalism" about "race in Philadelphia" and so he conducted interviews with some white people. In Fairmount.
One source is a "tall, slim, dark-haired beauty from Moscow getting out of her BMW" who tells him that "Blacks use skin color as an excuse" and waste your tax dollars while "not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot...Why do you support them when they won't work, just make babies and smoking pot?" If this is "what's not being said" about race by whites then white people like Huber might indeed need to keep theirs mouths shut.
Not only does this Russian fail to suggest where Philadelphians of any race are supposed to smoke pot (only half-kidding here, and surely Huber is aware that young whites are ten percent more likely to smoke pot than their black counterparts?), Russia is infamous for virulent racism against Afro-descendant people. (And then there's the matter of some male journalists feeling compelled to point out the physical attractiveness of female sources.) That being the case, this woman's quote appears more like a sock puppet for Huber's own mindset than a meaningful representation of anything about Philadelphia. Other characters include some kind of hipster who once lived next to a violent (black) drug dealer and prides himself "on [being at] the outer limits of engagement--even at the expense of his own well-being."
Then there's a white lady named Jen who bravely went to a pool in Brewerytown even though she and her daughter were the only white people there. Jen, who Huber clearly thinks deserves some sort of race relations medal, gushed that "these kids were so happy and sweet." Anyhow, what really shocked Huber was that one who lived across the street from the pool said she was "the luckiest girl in the world"--even though her house is a "beaten-down row."
Jen warns Huber that "there's a certain arrogance" in his "judgement...I might not know what people are truly experiencing." Jen, of course, was right.
But Huber, who feels "profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape" while driving through North Philly, doesn't take her free advice.
There's also an n-word dropping old white guy named John who complains about "when blacks from the South with chips on their shoulders...moved North." Huber does not endeavor to explain where John's white neighbors went (to the suburbs) or why black people moved to Philly as part of the great migration (Jim Crow terrorism, the collapse of the Southern agricultural economy, and booming war-time industrial production).
Which brings me to: Huber incorrectly dates "white flight" to the 1964 North Philly riots, rendering a city that was just 20-percent black in 1950 44-percent black today.
I know this article is not about "journalism" or, really, "facts," but if Huber had consulted a history book he might well have learned that most well-paying blue and white collar jobs were long denied to blacks here and elsewhere. And he would have understood that white people and good-paying jobs began leaving Philadelphia well before the riots thanks to the federal government subsidizing, through new roads and whites-only mortgages, their relocation to suburbs like Levittown. Levittown construction began in 1952, and blacks were explicitly denied entry.
Blacks finally got a foothold into American industry right as it began to move elsewhere. Black unemployment, concentrated in a segregated ghetto that expanded as whites took their federally-funded middle class welfare in the suburbs, skyrocketed.
The article, in fact, is not really about "white people" at all. It is, save for n-word dropping John, about rich and middle class white people. Philadelphia Magazine in 2011 declared Mummers "10 Things We Need To Get Rid Of" not so much, I think, because some mummers do or say racist shit. And I'm guessing Huber would probably be just as flummoxed by working class or poor whites on the other side of Front Street. These are whites that might say horrible things about blacks but who, unlike middle and upper class whites, felt they had to compete for evermore scarce resources in a declining city. Racial violence flared in Philadelphia's racial borderlands, from Kensington to Grays Ferry, through the 1990s. In 1985, whites in Southwest Philadelphia demonstrated against a black family moving in. The house was later burned.
In 2011, Mayor Michael Nutter grabbed national attention when he criticized black fathers for being mere "sperm donors" and chided young people for letting the "crack of your butt" show. He told black youth, "you've damaged your own race."
Such sermons, of course, appeal to a line of black self-help conservatism and nationalism that stretches from Booker T. Washington to Louis Farrakhan. But some white people have long met such intraracial put-downs and, especially those delivered by the far-more-palatable-to-whites-than-Farrakhan Bill Cosby, with undisguised glee.
As Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall wrote: Nutter "said it. In a way that his white constituents would hear him loud and clear. At that point, he wasn't talking to black people anymore. Nutter expressed in no uncertain terms the sentiment that so often shackles black people - that the unlawful actions of a few smear everyone else. Something whites never have to fear. Just as they never have to live up to the expectation of being a credit to their race. Whatever that means."
Indeed, a post titled "You’ve Damaged Your Own Race’: Philly Mayor Blasts Teens, Flash Mobs" went viral on Glenn Beck's website.
Philadelphia Magazine has reporters who do fantastic city magazine journalism, and I've heard that people close to the publication are not happy about this particular trolling expedition. Philadelphia Magazine can sometimes not help but to brazenly stroke the fragile if well-resourced egos of its elite readership--and, and on its worst days, stoke their pathetic prejudices and insecurities too.
(Their article is not online yet. But if it were I'm not sure I would assist in driving traffic their way by linking.)
[Thanks to @laurencetom for the image above.]