I heard about it early on Sunday morning. I had tweets, email messages and the academic equivalent of “Oh, no they didn’ts” blowing up my phone. The Philadelphia Magazine cover story, "Being White In Philly," was making the rounds of the academic community that I, a black Philadelphian and assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, inhabit. After reading the story for myself — I actually ran out to buy a copy of the magazine to get the full effect — I understood immediately why my world was outraged.
First of all, it’s kind of ironic that earlier this week I had a story on the Columbia Journalism Review website asking whether we had moved beyond the point where we need a separate black media to counterbalance the negative images of black people shown in the mainstream press. “Today, the role of the black press isn’t so easily defined, as the needs of the community have expanded and the mainstream media have become more inclusive,” I wrote.
But after seeing this unnecessarily provocative and sloppy piece of journalism that essentially blames black people for all of Philadelphia’s troubles, I’d have to answer my own question with a resounding no. If this is what the mainstream media calls a contribution to improving race relations and progress, then clearly we are not as far ahead as I thought.
I don’t think a person has to be black to recognize that as a piece of journalism, this story was seriously flawed. My freshman journalism students could figure that out. At best, this could have run as a personal essay where the writer, Robert Huber, takes us on a journey to talk with random racist white people he meets in a single neighborhood and realizes that the racist thoughts he has are shared by other people. In the end, he could have then come to the conclusion that he should seek some kind of help and/or reconciliation training so that he could stop feeling like a closeted racist and stop feeling afraid when he goes to the Wawa in the Mt. Airy neighborhood. It might have been a good piece. Readers might have applauded him for his honesty in disclosing his negative ideas about black folks. But that’s not what he did.
Instead, Huber and the Philly Mag editors decided to flagrantly disregard any and all journalistic principals and published this story as if it contained some real truths. As if Huber had actually done some real reporting, investigating and fact-finding. As if the story would reveal some things about race and the people in this city that we don’t already know.
Here are some things I learned from Huber’s article: Black people are hostile when accused of stealing. Black teenagers don’t like to be called “boy” when being reprimanded by white teachers. White people are self-conscious and hypersensitive because black people are hostile (see above). Foreigners are much better at being overtly racist and Americans should try to learn from them. The lack of context, expert opinion and any sort of attempt at balance would earn this story a failing grade in any of my classes.
In Journalism 101, we teach our students to gather a variety of voices in their stories, so as not to appear biased and to make sure they have a true cross-section of opinions expressed. It appears that Huber went out of his way to find people to quote who would voice the racist ideas he had in his own head, but was afraid to say in the personal essay he should have been writing.
Another lesson we try to teach our student is to have a point. If you’re going to kill a certain number of trees to print your stories on, please have a point. The very premise of this story — to tell us how white people really feel in Philadelphia — is flawed. Clearly, not all white people think the same way. To suggest that they do is about as simple-minded and derogatory as implying that all black people are pot-smoking criminals. (Oh, that’s part of the story, too.) Even more preposterous is the idea that this article was meant to somehow kick-start an honest dialogue about race. The last time I checked, there were other “races” in this city besides black and white. And these other races have opinions, problems, ideas and stories to share. It seems that Huber and McGrath want to equate talking about race with blaming black people for destroying Philadelphia.
Which brings me to my next point. As a black person who moved to Philadelphia a little more than six years ago, I am only too aware that this city has big-city problems. I know Philadelphia struggles with crime and poverty and segregated neighborhoods. I know the schools suck in many neighborhoods. And I know that parts of North Philadelphia look like a war zone.
But I too live in Mt. Airy. I live next door to a white woman and across the street from a Latino family. Compared to other places I’ve lived, Mt. Airy is a multi-culti Shangri-la. Now Huber has me thinking that all the white people at the Wawa are afraid of me? Damn. My bubble almost burst. Almost. But not quite.
Unlike Huber, I see progress all over Philadelphia where it comes to race relations. Maybe it’s because I’m new here, or maybe because Mt. Airy is an oasis of alternative lifestyles, or maybe because I look for the positive instead of cowering behind fear. I don’t know. Make no mistake, I’m not blind to some of the problems Huber alludes to — I guess I’m just not so naïve as to blame black people for all of them. The multitude of problems Philly faces requires a nuanced examination of class, corrupt politicians, the economy and zoning laws, just to name a few.
I’m not saying that Philadelphia Magazine shouldn’t have tried to tackle a good story about race relations. But this wasn’t a story about race relations. It was a story about fear. But white people have been afraid of black people since they dragged us here against our will. And they’ve been justifying that fear by demonizing black people for hundreds of years. This isn’t news. This is a rerun of history.
Philly Mag, for the sake of your readers who actually want to learn something new, please try again. And in the meantime, perhaps you could find at least one black editor in this city full of black people. I’m just saying.