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Saturday, December 20 2014 @ 09:53 AM CST

A Response to 'Being White In Philly'


Robert Huber's front page Philadelphia Magazine article entitled 'Being White In Philly' says a lot about the values and sensibilities of the bourgeois press in this city. We wonder how such a spiteful and ugly article made its way not only through the editing process but onto the front page of a "prestigious" Philadelphia magazine.

A Response to 'Being White In Philly'

Robert Huber's front page Philadelphia Magazine article entitled 'Being White In Philly' says a lot about the values and sensibilities of the bourgeois press in this city. We wonder how such a spiteful and ugly article made its way not only through the editing process but onto the front page of a "prestigious" Philadelphia magazine.

Huber claims that “white people never talk about it” - the “it” being race. In actuality, white people are in fact engaging in tough and necessary conversations about race, not only with each each other but with people of color as well. Thoughtful conversations on this topic are taking place all the time, but because they do not seem to be occurring in Huber's social circles we're meant to believe that these conversations are not happening at all.

One cannot talk about race without addressing the realities of class, privilege and white supremacy, things Huber barely mentions in his article. This is unfortunately not very surprising. Money and easy access to opportunities allow the privileged to create their own realities, and those with privilege often resist having their carefully constructed world views threatened by pesky little things like facts. Huber essentially does what many people of his class do all the time: he enables a process of selective blindness by choosing to downplay history and the enduring historical structures of white supremacy. He eschews historical context and essentially tells his readers that white people need to muster the gumption to “tell it like it is”, i.e., tell poor black people that the problems they face are all their own fault. This is one of the main reasons why his article is at its core quite troubling and why it needs to be addressed and strongly denounced.

In a city with so many social issues that need resolving, one wonders why the feelings and emotions of white people warrant a front page spread on the cover of Philadelphia Magazine. Or, too be more clear, the thoughts and feelings of specifically middle to upper middle class white people. From the article it appears that white people in Philadelphia are overall doing quite well, though this could be misleading since Huber did not bother to interview people living in predominantly white poor and working class neighborhoods.

The dynamics between whites and non-black ethnic groups were not even important enough to merit a passing mention. An article about race where only middle class white people and police officers are interviewed leaves much to be desired. The truly frightening thing is that perhaps Philadelphia Magazine knows its audience; perhaps they are telling their privileged, bourgeois readers exactly what they want to hear.

Huber's article begins on a decidedly sour note that sets the tone for the entire piece. He uses the opening paragraph to bemoan the “dangerous” and “predominantly African-American” neighborhood near his son's campus. He notices that there are “a lot of men milling around doing absolutely nothing” but he never asks the important question – “why?” What is being implied is that black people “milling around” is scary. In reality, Huber has no idea what those people were doing. White people socializing in groups is fine, but when black people living in poor neighborhoods do it, it's scary. Granted, crime may be a problem in that neighborhood, but it's all to easy to see the surface manifestations of problems and assign blame; if we're serious about addressing problems we will look for their root causes.

The reasons for high levels of unemployment in poor and working class black neighborhoods are multifaceted, but let's take a look at one explanation for the current situation that directly involves Temple university, the school Huber's son goes to.

Temple university is rapidly expanding its campus, and as of February 2012 planned construction projects were estimated to be at least $400 million. Most of these construction jobs are going to out of state unions comprised mostly of white men. Regular protests have been held by women union organizers and union members of various ethnic groups in an attempt to pressure Temple University to end its unfair labor practices. I'm sure many of the men Huber saw “milling around” near his son's apartment building would love to have one of those construction jobs. Unfortunately, the system has been set up to exclude them while favoring men like Huber.

Not too far from Temple University we have the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. Huber's decision to conduct the bulk of the interviews in this area of the city was an interesting one given its current struggle with the forces of gentrification. For people living in urban centers with substantial populations of people of color, gentrification is one of the most pressing, complex and contentious issues of our day - but not for Huber.

Gentrification is presented as the de facto solution to the damage poor blacks have inflicted upon themselves and their own communities. To drive home the point of how poor blacks brought it all upon themselves Huber enlists the help of an elderly racist man who refers to an alleged home intruder as a “nigger boy”. Shocking, yes, but Huber's extremely unflattering portrait of poor black people up until that point basically legitimizes the words of the man he's interviewing. According to the N-word dropping old man, “blacks from the South with chips on their shoulders...moved North.” Huber continues: “They moved into great brownstones above Girard [avenue] 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.”

So there you have it. Angry black people moved north, trashed a once beautiful neighborhood and forced whites to move out.

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