It’s always racist in Philadelphia.
At least that's what Robert Huber’s Philadelphia Magazine piece on “Being White in Philly” tells us.
Published earlier this month, the article raised the ire of many black Americans because of its alleged “racism,” prompting Mayor Michael Nutter to announce an investigation into its contents last weekend. What exactly he’ll “investigate” is unclear. What’s clear is that “White in Philly” is a great encapsulation of why American racism persists, and why it’s so “difficult” for white people to talk about it.
Huber argues that white Philadelphians have “stopped looking” at the city’s “poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods” because of a “queasiness over race.” Philly’s underclass is overwhelmingly black, and whites are scared to openly address this for fear of social consequences.
Photo Credit: Daniel Traub
To illuminate his understanding, Huber interviews whites about their racial experiences, claiming that each has an “utterly unique” and “uncomfortable” story “about how white and black people relate.” Unsurprisingly, a theme emerges: whites have developed a “certain tolerance of how things operate” because of America’s “horrible and daunting” racial history, but still do their best to “erase [these issues] from their thoughts.”
Huber concludes that Philadelphians need to “bridge the [black-white] conversational divide” so that it finally becomes “OK to speak openly about race,” and thereby “change the racial dynamics” of the city.
How very noble of him.
It’s telling how Huber came to write this piece: He was inspired after moving his younger son into student housing at Temple University, in North Philly. Seeing the boarded up houses and crumbling infrastructure, he recalls feeling “antsy” and “[wondering] what [he] was thinking, allowing [his son] to rent there.”
He brings up the issue to his white friends. But they see something different in the area: “New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They’re sunny about the area around Temple.” Considering the many “burglaries and robberies” of which “students are prime prey,” Huber remains skeptical.
Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal
A major problem is how the author conceptualizes Philly’s racial divide. When describing his tendency to be extra friendly to the black people he encounters in the name of “doing something positive for race relations,” he suggests the “carefulness” this represents is “at the heart of the problem.”
He couldn’t be more wrong.
The heart of the problem is that whites don’t actually have to address these “problems.” Their privileged position in the American racial hierarchy ensures this. Whatever struggles they encounter on a daily basis are considered “normal,” while struggles facing African Americans are issues whites have to deviate from their normal routine in order to “face.”
This means two things when it comes to dialogues about race. The first is that whites tend to only care about “black problems” once they start to affect white people. Huber’s article is case in point: Only when his son moved to a poor black neighborhood did he decide to aggressively address the pertinent issues.
Truth be told, that’s his privilege as a white man: His culture and appearance have been constructed as the American “norm,” and he can easily ignore "black problems" because they exist as separate from his daily reality.
For blacks, this is impossible. North Philadelphia is their daily reality. It’s equally disconcerting that Huber’s friends view these people’s homes as mere opportunities for “gentrification.” It posits their very presence as an impediment to “progress.”
The second thing is that racial discussions usually devolve into blacks explaining American racism to whites. For white people, I’d imagine this is very educational. They learn a lot, and come away feeling they’ve had a racial dialogue most whites have not.
But this rarely results in systematic change that actually impacts black lives, so for black people, it’s kind of a waste of time.
Photo Credit: Blogspot
If Huber truly wanted to affect racial change, he’d look beyond just altering how white people talk about race. He’d pick up one of many books on the topic. He’d learn that racism isn’t just a series of individual interactions, but an all-permeating institution resulting in real social and economic advantages for white people. He’d insist that all his white friends do the same. And he’d do everything he could to ensure that educational, social, and economic opportunity was not a white cultural monopoly.
But who am I kidding? Robert Huber can’t change everything on his own, and elevating these issues to a grander scale requires proactive work.
Frankly, that’s something white people haven’t been very good at. And so it goes.