It’s hard to believe that less than a week has passed since Philadelphia Magazine ran a story called “Being White in Philly” and set off a storm of debate about how not to write about race.
As a reminder, this month’s issue of the magazine features a first-person story by Robert Huber about racial tension in the city. It relies on anonymous sources from a single Philadelphia neighborhood and includes no voices of black people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the legwork, Huber concludes that fear of the African American community hinders the crossing of boundaries between blacks and whites.
Also unsurprisingly, many have criticized the story for its one-sidedness and journalistic sloppiness. Here, we list some of the best responses from readers, reporters and bloggers who would rather talk about race candidly and objectively.
- Starting here on Next City, Philly-based journalist and Temple University journalism professor Lori Tharps dissects Huber’s words and suggests that his anxiety is due to fear and a subtle racist perspective. Tackling the issue of fear in the white community, Tharps counters, “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.”
- Also writing for Next City, Dax-Devlon Ross argues that the story misses the point by focusing exclusively on race. Responding through the lens of class relation in society, Ross, who lives in New York, mentions that, “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.”
(Here’s a good spot to mention that Next City was one of the few professional media outlets to feature reponses written by black writers — a fact that warrants its own discussion.)
- No fewer than three Philadelphia Magazine writers pile on the criticism of the article in their own publication. Steve Volk calls the story straight-up racist. Jason Fagone argues that it “doesn’t make sense as journalism.” And Michael Coard points out that its conclusions don’t account for major historical facts about race in America and Philadelphia.
- Philly.com reporter Karen Heller calls attention to the article’s lack of transparency and diversity. While Huber’s article is about race in Philadelphia, Heller points out that only “white residents of Fairmount were asked what they thought about race, and by race Huber meant African Americans. And by African Americans, he meant only the poor and criminals, a stereotype offensive to everyone.” All of Huber’s sources are anonymous, which leaves causes Heller to question the credibility of his story.
- Philly-based photographer Tieshka Smith also calls Huber’s use of anonymous sources into question in the Philly Mag comment section. “I spoke with a number of Brewerytown and Fairmount community stakeholders, looking for subjects to interview and photograph,” Smith writes. “Many people from all walks of life stepped up and agreed to participate… proudly and not under the cover of anonymity.” (Disclosure: Smith’s art has been featured at Next City’s Storefront for Urban Innovation.)
- Charing Ball, writing for the website MadameNoire, criticizes Huber for rehashing obvious problem of race in society without suggesting any new solutions. “It’s easy to rant about how prevalent crime and drugs in certain communities are but a lot harder to talk why the schools are failing and uneven unemployment and incarceration rates in the black community,” Ball writes. “It’s easy to shudder flippantly as you pass a dilapidated and/or abandoned property and a lot harder to explain or come to terms with the redlining, predatory lending and other ways in which economic alienation happens, which always seems to target the housing stock in communities where black, the brown and the immigrant resides.”
- Jeff Deeney of the blog Phawker notes the dearth of minority voices in the discussion, positing that remedying this will help Philly get over its long-held biases. He writes, “Philadelphia like every other major city desperately needs a broader representation of voices in its media landscape; more women’s voices, more queer voices, more black, Latino and Asian voices.”
- Over at the City Paper, a local alternative weekly, Daniel Denvir notes that Huber ignores important historical context about race in Philadelphia, writing, “…if Huber had consulted a history book he might well have learned that most well-paying blue and white collar jobs were long denied to blacks here and elsewhere. And he would have understood that white people and good-paying jobs began leaving Philadelphia well before the riots thanks to the federal government subsidizing, through new roads and whites-only mortgages, their relocation to suburbs like Levittown. Levittown construction began in 1952, and blacks were explicitly denied entry.”
- Finally, The Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates quips that “as an after-school special on the minds of white Philadelphians, the piece is marginally successful. As an essay on ‘Being White in Philadelphia’ it is a failure.” He adds, “…you can never write beautifully about the fact of race, anymore than you can write beautifully about the fact of hillsides. All you’ll end up with is a lot of words, and a comment section filled with internet skinheads and people who have nothing better to do with their time then to argue internet skinheads.”