Full disclosure. I am white and don’t live in Philly. In some people’s minds these two facts alone disqualify me from saying anything meaningful about race in Philadelphia. I very much would like to live in Philadelphia, but for various reasons my wife and I have decided to live in the western suburbs. The fact that we are white and middle class gives us the freedom to make choices about where we will live that others do not have. I fully recognize these realities and recognize that these alone could discredit anything I might say on the matter.
However, let me also point out that while I do not live in Philly, I spend a great deal of my time in West Philadelphia working on issues of racial reconciliation, economic justice and gun violence prevention alongside people of many of races and cultures. I am part of city wide groups like NewCORE (New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity) and POWER (Philadelphians Organized for Witness, Empowerment and Rebuilding) multi-racial groups addressing issues of racial and economic disparity in the city. I also teach courses on race and ethnic relations and social justice at a local college. So I have some credibility; yet the very fact I must list these credentials betrays the delicacy with which issues of race and class must be approached in our society.
Having said all of this, I have been somewhat surprised by the controversy created by Philadelphia Magazine’s recent article “Being White in Philly.” The article largely focuses on the experiences and perspectives of middle class white folks in a section of the city known as Brewerytown. Last fall one of my students wrote a community analysis paper about Brewerytown and concluded that there was clear divide of race and class that existed on either side of the Poplar and Girard Avenues in the neighborhood. “Being White in Philly” largely illustrates the accuracy of my student’s analysis. If there was a flaw in the article it was not the stories of white experience, but rather that the article should have been entitled “Being White in a Part of Philly” or better yet “The Experience of Some Whites in One Part of Philly.” Nonetheless, Brewerytown is not the only neighborhood in the city experiencing the division of race and class that is described in the article.
The negative reaction to the article seems to imply that the author, Richard Huber, was presenting the white perspective (and therefore the definitive perspective) on race relations in Philadelphia. I must confess that I did not read it that way. The article does not capture the experiences of all whites in Philly, but it does describe the perspective of some whites. This perspective is often not voiced precisely because of the reaction like that of Mayor Michael Nutter, who in a public letter to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commissionaccused the Philadelphia Magazine of “[sinking] to a new low,” propagating “disparaging beliefs, the negative stereotypes, the ignorant typically and historically ascribed to African Americans citizens” and putting forth “a collection of these despicable, over-generalized, mostly anonymous assumptions.” The mayor ‘s reaction lends weight to Huber’s observation that “Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city.” In response to the criticism put forth by the mayor and others, Philadelphia Magazine’s editor admitted that the article had flaws and did not provide enough context, while at the same time pointing out, “We by no means were trying to do a definitive take on race relations in Philadelphia. We set out to do this from one particular point of view.” To mention the issue of race in an article does not make either the author, the magazine or the people who shared their experience racist. Rather it is to share their perspective regardless of how skewed or limited it might be.
My point is this: bringing up the issue of race does not make one racist. Sharing one’s perspective does not make one racist. Racism is not only about the words one uses, but also the way in which power and resources are disproportionately allocated along lines of race and class. Racism is built into the very fabric of our society and city, such that those who are often most often marginalized and disadvantaged by public policies and practices are people of color. Racism is built into the policies and practices of government, business, education and health care regardless of the race of those who happen to be making the decisions or speaking out on those issues.
The fact of the matter is that in Philadelphia the disparities that exist often do fall along race lines. At the same time both some of the most privileged as well as the most victimized citizens in the city are people of color. While black on white crime may be a problem in places like Brewerytown, black on black crime is a far greater issue in many parts of the city. While persons of color occupy the offices of the Mayor, Police Commission, Superintendent of Schools, and many of the major city, state and national political offices, those who suffer the most from the recent tax reassessment, unemployment, school closings and gun-related incidents are also persons of color. Racism goes far deeper than the experiences of a few white people in one section of the city.
While my experiences do not reflect the experiences of those depicted in the article, I know whites who share the perspective of those cited in the story. At the same, those same white folks whose houses have been vandalized or who have mugged by persons of color will often in the next breath say that they wish that the assailant had not been a person of color. They recognize that often the crime and violence they experienced is more about poverty and lack of opportunity than race. They recognize that persons of color are victimized as much or more than they are.
Talking about being white in Philly for many folks is a delicate and sensitive issue. However, if there is to be meaningful discussion about race and racism in Philadelphia or in the United States in general, all voices and all perspectives must be allowed without being disparaged out of hand.