Killing the messenger

The words of Barack Obama, back when he was a candidate in 2008, standing as an invitation during last week's discussion of a recent article in Philadelphia Magazine.
The words of Barack Obama, back when he was a candidate in 2008, standing as an invitation during last week's discussion of a recent article in Philadelphia Magazine. (CLARK DeLEON / For the Inquirer)

The delivery mode matters when it comes to talking about race.

Posted: March 25, 2013

The '60s spoiled me for the future of America. Now that I'm in my own 60s, I see that time with startling clarity. It was tumultuous and scary, but the direction of the social, political, and scientific winds seemed so inevitable.

A handsome young president declared that we would send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. A black minister from Georgia had a dream of justice that made perfect, poetic sense.

By the year 2000, it seemed, we would have colonies on Mars, and we would all be judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin (or our planetary origin). I never imagined that 50 years later, relations between white and black Philadelphians would be defined by the question of how long one should hold a door open at the local Wawa.

That was just one of the questions raised by Philadelphia Magazine's recent cover story, "Being White in Philly," which has been dismissed, denigrated, and officially declared objectionable by Mayor Nutter (the third African American in as many decades to be twice elected chief executive of this great city). Imagine if this city's politicians, activists, and journalists made such a fuss over every stupid, shallow, elitist, or transparently advertiser-driven article that appeared in Philadelphia Magazine.

But try telling a story - and that's all this was, not a racial manifesto - about how some white people honestly, timidly, and uncomfortably feel about some black people, and, well, saints preserve us. We've never heard such thoughts spoken out loud. Not in public, anyway.

In what I thought was a valuable democratic exercise in free speech at the National Constitution Center on Monday, more than 200 citizens gathered to talk about the taboo subject of race in the wake of the magazine's story. It was on the same stage exactly five years earlier that President Barack Obama made his defining speech about race in America.

Before the audience and panelists filed in, some of the president's words appeared on a projection screen overhead: "If we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together to solve challenges." But, "working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds," and "in fact, we have no choice."

What many people didn't notice, and what the news media failed to highlight from this intensely reported and analyzed speech, was Obama's remarkable candor in describing his own experience in an urban African American church. He spoke of the "kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance ... the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America."

What other presidential candidate could have used words like cruelty, shocking ignorance, bitterness, and bias in such a context without being publicly condemned? And why is Philadelphia Magazine being pilloried at the highest levels for stating a simple, street-level racial reality?

I think one of the featured panelists at last week's discussion identified the key reason for the depth and scale of the negative reaction to the article. "When you talk about race, you have to keep two things in mind: the messenger and the message," said Farah Jimenez, who runs the People's Emergency Shelter, a social-service agency in West Philadelphia. "And I think for Philly Mag, the challenge was that it is viewed as an inappropriate messenger for this conversation." In other words, imagine the reaction if Ebony or Jet magazine chose to publish a harsh, class-conscious critique of the Devon Horse Show using anonymous sources.

The audience, made up of about equal numbers of blacks and whites, was by no means homogenous in its reactions. Sixx King, a young African American filmmaker from Philadelphia, took the microphone and challenged the panelists: "Why will the African American community not stand up to the subculture that is hell-bent on decimating our legacy? Since 2001, there have been more than 70,000 black-on-black murders. ... When a white man shoots an unarmed black man in this country, the black community yells, 'Racism!' But when a black man shoots an unarmed black man in this country, the black community yells nothing."

Nobody said this conversation about race wouldn't make people feel uncomfortable. In fact, it was no less an authority on the subject than Malcolm X who offered perhaps the most sensible description of what would be necessary for such a meaningful conversation to take place.

"The white man and the black man have to be able to sit down at the same table," he said in response to a reporter's question, not long before he was assassinated. "The white man has to feel free to speak his mind without hurting the feelings of the Negro. The so-called Negro has to feel free to speak his mind without hurting the feelings of the white man. Then they can bring the issues that are under the rug out on top of the table, and take an intelligent approach to getting the problem solved."


Clark DeLeon can be reached at deleonc88@aol.com.

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