Philly mag got it wrong on race

Posted: March 06, 2013

I'M SORRY, Philly. I tried to talk sense to my friend Bob Huber. I really did.

If Bob's name is familiar to you, it's because he wrote this month's Philadelphia magazine cover story. It's called "Being White in Philly," and it's lighting up the blogosphere for a good reason:

It's terrible.

Well-intentioned and well-written, yes.

But terrible.

Bob has been writing for Philly mag for decades. From 1992 to 1995, I was a writer there, too, and we became friends. We don't see each other much these days. But when we do, we pick up as if it's been days, not years, since we'd last been together.

He's a thoughtful guy, kind and funny, a great writer and an incisive editor. Basically, I'm a fan.

So when Bob called in November to ask if he could pick my brain about a story he was working on, I said yes. Over breakfast at the Down Home Diner, he described the tale he'd been mulling, about how tough it is to talk about race in this city if you're white.

"I think that depends on what you're gonna say," I said.

Race is a generic word, but Bob was using it only as it pertained to the discomfort he said that white people felt when they wanted to say difficult things about black people but didn't want to be labeled racist. I took issue with a lot of what Bob deemed to be race issues, since he seemed intent on labeling as "black" problems the problems that are associated with grinding poverty.

Such as crime, single-parenthood, generational fatherlessness, unemployment, lack of education, and the hopelessness and desperation that fuel all of it.

I've been writing this column for 14 years, and I've met people of all races dealing with these issues. These are not black, white, Latino or Asian issues. They're human issues.

They can take on different nuances, depending on culture. In some neighborhoods, there may be more poor blacks than poor Latinos, more poor whites than poor Asians.

But the issues are crushing regardless of skin color. So to focus on skin color is to miss the point.

Bob didn't think so. He thought people, specifically white people, needed to talk more about race - i.e., black people and their behavior, or at least white people's perceptions of their behavior - and how it affected them.

"But which black people do you mean?" I badgered him. "They're not all the same. Neither are white people."

I was getting agitated, and Bob suggested we stop our discussion and instead catch up on each other's lives. That was a good suggestion, because I was finding Bob's presumptions so offensive that I was wondering if I ever knew him in the first place.

By the end of our breakfast, we were back to laughing, comparing notes on parenthood, aging and our hopes for the future of journalism. We parted friends, and I felt glad, as always, to have seen him. And then the holidays came and I pretty much forgot about our breakfast.

Until the latest issue of Philly mag hit the newsstands.

As I read Bob's piece, my spirit sagged. It broke no new ground, as Bob hoped it would. It was presumptuous about both blacks and whites.

And much as Bob had wanted it to be "brave," there is nothing brave about a piece that relies 100 percent on unnamed white people to share anecdotes about unnamed black people.

Instead, it wussed out in the same way that the anonymous commenters at the end of online newspaper or magazine stories wuss out.

I expected more from a piece that ran more than 5,000 words - a length of space we would kill for here at the Daily News.

Sadly, Bob's piece didn't advance any conversation about race, as Philly mag editor (and my longtime friend) Tom McGrath promised in his editor's note about the story.

"To not talk about race is to admit that we can never move forward," he said.

But move forward from what, exactly? Tom doesn't say.

But he does say that to "not do the story would be to declare that the problems of Philadelphia's underclass are theirs and theirs alone.

"In truth, the fact that nearly a third of African-Americans here live below the poverty line - and in many cases live surrounded by violence - remains Philadelphia's single biggest issue, the one that drives every other issue, from crime and violence to schools and unemployment."

But 17 percent of whites also now live in poverty in Philadelphia, along with 42 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent on Asians. The city as a whole has gotten poorer in the past decade.

So why is Philly mag more focused on poor blacks than on the poor of every color?

Bob Huber wanted his piece to start a conversation, he told me during our breakfast.

Well, it did. I only wish it had been more worthy of the space the magazine gave it.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: philly.com/ronnieblog

Columns: philly.com/Ronnie

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