Refuting ‘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. Some might wonder how such a spiteful and ugly article made its way not only through the editing process but onto the very front page of a “prestigious” Philadelphia magazine. We should, however, not be surprised by this. We must recognize that this article fits perfectly into a pattern of color-blind racism which has become the dominant form of racism in our so-called post racial society.

Huber claims that “white people never talk about it” – the “it” being race. Will simply talking about race solve deeply entrenched social problems? Of course not, but in actuality, white people are in fact already engaging in tough and necessary conversations about race amongst themselves and with people of color as well. Those who are having these conversations usually understand that the issues often attributed to culture and superficial physical characteristics have more to do with class and power dynamics, something Huber totally fails to grasp. Despite his claim, thoughtful discussions on this topic are taking place all the time, but because they do not seem to be occurring in his social circles we’re meant to believe that these conversations are not happening at all.

‘Being White In Philly’ begins on a decidedly sour note which sets the tone for the entire piece. Huber 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; 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.

By the time Huber declares that “the inner city needs to get its act together” naïve readers would probably wholeheartedly agree after being barraged with one unflattering stereotype after another. A Russian immigrant going to law school here in Philadelphia comes to the brink of basically calling black people porch monkey’s with no comment from Huber except remarks about how physically attractive he finds her.

Near the end of his article, in what may be an effort at mitigating some of the earlier damage, there’s a clumsy attempt at showing a neighborhood’s racial harmony. Instead what happens is Huber accidentally gives us a chilling glimpse into how gentrification works. A middle class couple decides to send their child to a majority black school in their neighborhood despite the fact that their neighbors send their children to a more prestigious school in the nearby money drenched Rittenhouse section of Philadelphia. Ignoring reservations about their choice, these trail blazers pressed ahead and insisted on keeping their child at the mostly black school; eventually they convinced ten other families to take a chance and enroll their kids there as well. Heartwarming.

We learn a bit later on the real reason for the sudden interest in the mostly black neighborhood school: the prestigious school in Rittenhouse is in fact becoming crowded; spots are limited. As Huber explains, “the city is naturally expanding outward”. Jen, the woman being held up as a sort of reverse Harriet Tubman admits, “People in the neighborhood are now getting nervous whether there’s a spot for them here.” Who exactly these nervous people are is not made clear, but it’s fair to assume that Jen, her architect husband and their fellow well to do neighbors are not one of them.

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.

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. Liberals often view attitudes and beliefs as sources of oppression rather than taking the radical view which tends to focus much more on dismantling concrete systems of power. Financial assets and easy access to opportunities have accrued disproportionately to those populations who have historically been closest to systems of power. We cannot talk about race relations in an urban environment like Philadelphia without acknowledging and exploring the implications of this imbalance.

Easy access to centers of power and material resources allow the privileged to create their own realities, and as Huber shows us, 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.
Huber’s claim that middle class white people in Philadelphia need to be more outspoken about their grievances with poor black people is utterly ridiculous. Unless gentrifiers are calling for abolishing capitalism and reparations to long neglected communities, I’m not sure what they could have to say that poor blacks would need to hear.

Liberal solutions to social problems often involve personal lifestyle changes, dialogue for the sake of dialogue and copious amounts of soul searching, but rarely do they strike at the structural core of the issues they claim to want to address. Huber’s analysis of the white person’s dilemma in Philadelphia is no different. Institutional racism and the effects of capitalism on vulnerable populations received very little and no mention respectively. At no point does Huber suggest that his readers question a system that fosters and promotes criminal behavior, poverty and inequality within certain populations. Instead, his presumably white audience is called upon to be more vocal in expressing their moral outrage, and to not shrink from giving those wayward Negroes a good tongue lashing if necessary. Liberal racism may be less virulent than the Rush Limbaugh/Glen Beck variety, but at their core lies one major theme: the oppressed are always to blame, and it’s up to white people to somehow save the day.

We should, however, perhaps thank Huber for putting on display what many of us have known all along to be true: to get beyond race we must work harder towards building a classless society. The bourgeois, capitalist classes created and sustained our current (scientifically debunked) notion of race and they continue to perpetuate these fantasies. For the privileged classes, worrying about the color of someone’s skin is much easier than questioning the very foundations of a system that benefits them.

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