Inquirer Editorial: Can we talk about race?

Robert Huber this week at a National Constitution Center discussion of his Philadelphia Magazine article. ED HILLE / Staff
Robert Huber this week at a National Constitution Center discussion of his Philadelphia Magazine article. ED HILLE / Staff
Posted: March 22, 2013

Attorney General Eric Holder was criticized early in the first Obama administration for calling this country a "nation of cowards" when it comes to discussing racism.

Well, Holder might have been heartened this past week by the myriad conversations in this city concerning a controversial Philadelphia Magazine article titled "Being White in Philly." It certainly got people talking. But whether the discussions will produce positive change or - like President Bill Clinton's National Conversation on Race - leave most people, black and white, unsatisfied is a question mark.

The article by Robert Huber was well intended in wanting to report the belief of some whites that they can't express legitimate criticism of African Americans without being labeled racist. But the lopsided perspective, based solely on interviews with unnamed whites, came across as promoting stereotypes of blacks as criminals and slackers. The anonymous comments justifiably touched a nerve in a city with its own shameful history of racism toward African Americans, a city where too many poor, black neighborhoods remain racially segregated and economically isolated.

In a scathing letter to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, Mayor Nutter asked it to consider whether the magazine should be rebuked for the article. The mayor seems to have forgotten that the First Amendment safeguards expressions of views that may be unpalatable to some people. But the commission, which in the past has not led the charge for a needed conversation on race, took an appropriate step by inviting Huber and his editor, Tom McGrath, to attend its public meeting next month.

In fact, Huber and McGrath deserve credit for facing their critics this past week at forums sponsored by the magazine at the National Constitution Center and by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists in The Inquirer and Daily News' public room.

It would be good to see the commission use the outrage over the magazine article as a catalyst for it to become a more forceful voice for the city's minority communities - and not just wait for crisis situations to erupt that demand its attention. A more proactive approach by the commission could do more to ease tensions among the city's diverse populations - tensions that, as the magazine article pointed out, do exist.

The article's point that some people don't like to talk about race because they fear the consequences is valid. Too bad it didn't take a more balanced approach by presenting the views of blacks and whites. But that shortcoming has created an opportunity to move race relations forward, if the city can take advantage of it.

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