The recent issue of Philadelphia Magazine has many up in arms for its controversial cover line and accompanying article, which many feel stokes the fears and racist views of Whites in a city that is predominantly Black.
The article, written by White writer Robert Huber and entitled “Being White in Philly,” asserts that:
Fifty years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement, more than 25 years after electing its first African-American mayor, Philadelphia remains a largely segregated city, with uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding. And also in well-being. There is a Black middle class, certainly, and Blacks are well-represented in our power structure, but there remains a vast and seemingly permanent Black underclass. Thirty-one percent of Philadelphia’s more than 600,000 Black residents live below the poverty line. Blacks are more likely than whites to be victims of a crime or commit one, to drop out of school and to be unemployed.
Writing about his discomfort with having his son rent in the area near Temple University, where his son goes to school, Huber discusses how, while his White peers see the good in Philly, he doesn’t:
I’ve shared my view of North Broad Street with people—white friends and colleagues—who see something else there: New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They’re sunny about the area around Temple. I think they’re blind, that they’ve stopped looking. Indeed, I’ve begun to think that most white people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago. One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race. Many of those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. And if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid them—you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.
The article goes on to suggest that Whites are between a rock and a hard place because — as Philadephia CityPaper’s Daniel Denvir puts it, “[Whites are] muzzled in discussions of race”:
What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color. Of course, it is black people who have faced generations of discrimination and who deal with it still. But our public discourse ignores the fact that race—particularly in a place like Philadelphia—is also an issue for white people. Though white people never talk about it.
Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.
The piece contains observations about Blacks such as the one from a female Russian immigrant:
Blacks use skin color as an excuse, she says. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving forward. … It’s a shame—you pay taxes, they’re not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot … Why do you support them when they won’t work, just making babies and smoking pot?”
Huber’s response to the Russian woman’s perception is that:
If you’re not an American, the absence of a historical filter results in a raw view focused strictly on the here and now. I meet a contractor from Maine named Adrian, who brought his Panamanian wife to live here, at 19th and Girard, where she saw fighting and drug deals and general bad behavior at the edge of Brewerytown. It all had her convinced there is a “moral poverty” among inner-city Blacks.
Driving home the point about “inner-city Blacks” having a “moral poverty,” Hubert writes:
The danger can be a little steeper. One afternoon, at Krupa’s Tavern at 27th and Brown, a guy named Bob tells me about working in the mailroom at Rolling Stone magazine years ago and shows me an anthology of Beat-era writers he’s reading. I can’t resist asking him about his wire-rim glasses, which are way down on his nose and twisted at an absurd angle—there’s no way he can see out of them.
‘Oh,’ he says, smiling, ‘I went home one night from the bar and two guys smashed my face into the cement steps of my house’—that’s what messed up his glasses. ‘A few days later I got my wallet back in the mail—they had thrown it in somebody’s mailbox.’
He acknowledges that his assailants were Black. ‘Not that that matters,’ he says.
Huber then goes on to discuss his conversation with “John,” an 87-year-old who has lived in the community since 1930. For John, his neighborhood went to hell in a hand basket the moment Blacks began infiltrating the community with “chips on their shoulders”:
Milk and bread and ice delivered to your door. A city worker coming by every evening to climb a ladder to light the gas lamps that cast a beautiful glow. There were four nearby houses of prostitution, and tailors and drugstores, a butcher, barbers, a candy store—a self-contained world. Everybody had a laundry tree in the alley out back, and every Monday there’d be a snow of white—until shirts and towels and sheets began disappearing, right after the Second World War.
That’s when Blacks from the South, with chips on their shoulders, John says, moved North. They moved into great brownstones above Girard and trashed them, using banisters and doors to stoke their furnaces instead of buying coal. Before long, it looked like Berlin after the war. Whites moved out.
The writer closes his feature on the White perspective of race in Philly, in part, with this:
In so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist. And so white people are stuck, dishonest by default, as we take a pass on the state of this city’s largely Black inner city and settle for politely opening doors at Wawa, before we slip back to our own lives. We’re stuck in another way, too. Our troubled black communities create in us a tangle of feelings, including this one: a desire for things to be better. But for that sentiment to come true—for it to mean anything, even—I’ve come to believe that White people have to risk being much more open. It’s impossible to know how that might change the racial dynamics in Philadelphia, or the plight of the inner city. But as things stand, our cautiousness and fear mean that nothing changes in how blacks and whites relate, and most of us lose out on the possibility of what Jen has found: real connection.
Critics of the article are shocked by the article’s seemingly xenophobic 1950s stance.
The following are some reactions:
the magazine’s “Being White in Philly” story is racist
The Worst Person In the world: Robert Huber.
@SpeakPatrice “How do you launch a frank discussion about race under a cloak of anonymity?
Bad idea, bad execution, bad editorial decision to publish. Just bad. And yes, I’m talking about White In PHL piece
best part of this article about race in Philly? No Asians or Hispanics. Neat trick how he did that.
The magazine’s editor, Tom McGrath, explained in his editor’s letter, why he and his editorial team made the decision to discuss the highly explosive topic of race, stating:
To not talk about race is to admit that we can never move forward.