You know that moment when a kid finally punctures the birthday party pinata? The first piece of candy squirts out, and the blindfolded kid starts bludgeoning the glorified candy receptacle as if her life depended on it. Well, that was me reading Robert Huber’s “Being White in Philly” in last week’s Philadelphia Magazine.
A mere three paragraphs in, I was already circling the author’s antiquated terminology (who still uses “underclass”?), underlining his milquetoast turns of phrase (“quesiness of over race”/ “uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding”), highlighting his self-ingratiating attempts to position himself as an avatar of both white guilt (“I find myself being overly polite”) and honesty (“I think they’re [meaning his white friends and colleagues] blind, that they’ve stopped looking.”). I’d even started scribbling notes for my response (“he is clearly overdetermining the experience of poverty”).
Then it occurred to me that I wasn’t reading the article at all. I was performing the intellectual exercise that I mastered in high school, undergrad, law school and grad school: The art of criticism. And I have to admit, it felt really good. I thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to dust off the old lit-crit cap and relive my ivory-tower glory days for a few moments. After all, how often does a respected publication serve up such a clumsy cover story on the one subject that every American thinks they’re an expert on? But once I was aware of my own designs — that I was literally building a straw man to tear down — I put down the pen and actually read.
By the end, I’d drawn two tentative conclusions. One was that Huber was coming from a genuinely good place. As problematic as his approach may have been to journalism purists — the reliance upon interviews of white pseoudonymous Philadelphians — his attempt to unearth the racial dissonance simmering on the surface of many urban sidewalks struck me, a black man who’s experienced gentrification in D.C. and New York, as sincere. As far as I was concerned, the voices were merely the background singers anyway. The lead vocalist and primary subject of the story was the author and his own alienation. My heart went out to him when he wrote, “That I could take the leap of talking about something that might seem to be about race with black people”. His turmoil merited consideration and compassion, not belittlement and ridicule.
Which isn’t to say that Huber, and by implication his editors, didn’t come off a bit out of touch with the salient issue driving the divide between Americans in cities across the country — class and its close relative, culture. This was conclusion number two: By labeling it simply a color divide, Huber sidestepped the even deeper, more pressing wealth and worth issues fanning today’s urban divisions.
In Philadelphia, as elsewhere in the country, race and class are easily conflated. Because so many African Americans are among the inner city’s have-nots, it is universally assumed that whenever we’re talking about the inner city’s problems, we’re talking about racial problems. Not necessarily true. More often than not we’re talking about the result of economic phenomena — deindustrialization, suburban flight, urban neglect, a shrinking tax base, declining municipal services and discriminatory housing and employment policies — that continue to have racial implications today. African Americans buy homes, on average, eight years later than whites. Homes owned by black people appreciate in value at a slower rate than their white counterparts. Just last week, a report out of Brandeis University revealed that African Americans continue to experience a persistent and widening gulf in housing and employment opportunities.
Case in point: Philadelphia Magazine‘s masthead. In his defense of the magazine and Huber, editor Tom McGrath wrote, “Indeed, among our discussions was a debate about whether we — a magazine noted with exactly zero people of color on its full-time editorial staff — even had license to report and write on such a sensitive topic.”
Is an all-white cast of decision-makers at the city’s flagship magazine problematic? Yes. It’s a sign of racism? I seriously doubt it. Rather, it’s more likely the product of a broader socioeconomic system and set of implicit and explicit institutional practices (class) that tends to reproduce class rigidity by identifying and rewardng people who, through a combination of effort, talent and opportunity, have cultivated and mastered the dominant group’s ideas, attitudes and behaviors (culture). Likewise, I would argue that Huber’s discussions with white people were really about class and culture which, had he recognized as much and really taken it there, could have produced far more thought-provoking discussion about urban inequity and the roots of community tension.
What, after all, does it mean that Ben, one of Huber’s pseudonymous sources, grew up on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, went to Vassar, taught for a bit, did some a non-profit stint and “got into rehabbing houses” before buying one himself at 30? Did that just happen? Was there a trust fund, an inheritance? What are his thoughts on his to buy into a depressed neighborhood? What exactly does he mean when he says he thought the neighborhood “was about to change”? There’s a rich class story there yet Huber’s cultish focus on race allowed Ben to comfortably shrug off his “urban pioneer” status without any deep reflection on what drove a kid from Madison Avenue to slum in a Philly ‘hood in the first place.
How about Jen, the 30-something mother of two who sent her children to the mostly black neighborhood elementary school (to the horror of her neighbors)? Where did Jen develop her outlier mindset? Did it have something to do with going to Drexel University on a basketball scholarship? Division 1 basketball programs tend draw athletes from different races, class backgrounds and parts of the country. Drexel’s current roster features a near 50-50 split of white and black players. In all likelihood, Jen had a diverse set of experiences playing basketball all of her life. Did those experiences inform her choices regarding family and education? Again, Huber failed to appreciate Jen’s complex class story sitting. It was ripe for the picking, sitting just beneath the pat story about white people he was determined tell.
In my other life, I’m a group facilitator. I help institutions (high schools and colleges, mostly) have what can often be difficult conversations about uncomfortable subjects. A lot of my job is asking questions, listening to answers and holding space so that a community — up to 150 large at times — can talk to one another without shutting down or combusting. For the past two months, I’ve been facilitating weekend-long retreats on socioeconomic class at some of the country’s premier colleges and universities. I’ve been to California, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. Day one’s challenge is to get people out of their heads. Bright college kids understandably want to intellectualize. Day’s two challenge is to manage the emotional outpourings that come forth. Invariably, conversations about class trigger people to dig into their personal histories and unearth what can often be painful memories about worth and status. As a facilitator, it’s my job to validate those experiences and help them think about how they can use them to grow.
It’s especially powerful to watch young people from a cross section of society share stories with one another. Contrary to popular belief, the inner-city black kid is often no more schooled in race lingo or class consciousness than his white counterpart who attended an exclusive boarding academy. They are both blindly trudging through the murky history previous generations have bequeathed to them and just as likely to have revelatory moments that help them understand their own story. And when they tell those stories — sometimes even sob through them — they invariably walk away on day three with a sense of solidarity and community that has the potential to alter their life course moving forward.
In my experience, whites aren’t unwilling to take the “risk” of talking about race publically. Quite the opposite can be true. Two of last year’s highest grossing and most talked about films were principally about race — Lincoln and Django Unchained. Quentin Tarrantino, the director of the latter film, called mass incarceration the “slavery of our times” in a nationally televised interview. The murder of Trayvon Martin last winter sparked a multistate, cross-racial movement against urban policing tactics that target young black and brown males. We reelected an African-American president.
We talk plenty about race in America and, among younger generations especially, have reached a point where the “cautiousness and fear” that Huber claims he observes between black and white Philadelphians is a fast-fading memory. What we don’t do well is talk carefully and candidly about poverty, wealth and the economic vice grip that’s widening the divide between the haves and have-nots.
The aforementioned Brandeis study followed 1,700 Americans over a 25-year period. Between 1984 and 2009, the chasm between white and black wealth nearly tripled. By 2009, the median net worth of whites in the study was $265,000, compared with $28,500 for blacks. These disparities have real world consequences. They influence who has children, who gets married, who buys a home, who commits crime, who goes to jail, who can send their children to college, who can invest, who can take a vacation, who gets a promotion, who gets a loan, who can retire, who can live in the city, who’s consigned to the outskirts.
“The racial wealth gap is the civil rights agenda for the 21st century,” said Thomas Shapiro, the author of the Brandeis report. I would have to agree. If we’re not talking about economic justice in a country where money matters above all, then we’re really not about anything of consequence, even if claims to be about race.
Dax-Devlon Ross is the author of five books and has written essays and articles for a range of publications, including Time and the New York Times. He is a non-profit higher-education consultant and the executive director of After-School All-Stars NY-NJ. You can find him at daxdevlonross.com.