‘Being White in Philly': America agonises over race and free speech after article sparks furore

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Mr Huber, a writer, sought to address this in a detailed exploration of race
in one of American’s biggest and most segregated cities for this month’s
edition of Philadelphia magazine. And he wrote it from the
perspective of fellow whites in the city.

The unvarnished result was Being
White in Philly
. It has been praised by some as a thoughtful
insight into this most sensitive of subjects, but denounced by many – both
black and white – for perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes in a one-sided
depiction based on the prejudiced views of unidentified whites.

Mr Huber concluded with a call for a debate about race to take place, not just
within the white and black communities, but between them. “We need to
end the conversational divide so that there are no longer two private
dialogues in Philadelphia,” he wrote.

He has certainly achieved that wish. In a country where the legacy of slavery,
segregation and discrimination still burn deep, the article in a city
magazine has sparked a bout of national soul-searching.

Half a century after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech
about race equality, and more than four years after the first
African-American president took office, the uproar illustrates how sensitive
the issue remains in America.

That this debate is playing out in Philadelphia only deepens the
soul-searching, given the role that the city has in the country’s psyche.

The City of Brotherly Love – its motto is the translation of its name from the
Greek – was the location for the signing of the Declaration of Independence
in 1776 and the adoption of the US Constitution in 1787. The First Amendment
to that document enshrines the cherished principles of freedom of speech and

The fact that the editorial staff of Philadelphia magazine is entirely
white has fuelled the uproar. The publication’s only African-American
employee, who works as an events planner, published a commentary in The
Philadelphia Inquirer
last weekend.

In The
Only Black Person in the Room
Adrienne Simpson called the cover
story a “lopsided, conflagrant editorial – that teetered on the brink
of fear-mongering”.

The backlash has been led by Michael Nutter, the mayor, who condemned the
magazine for portraying “an ethnic group that, in its entirety, is
lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, and largely criminal”.

In his letter to the city human relations commission, its equal opportunities
agency, he excoriated the publication for the “reckless equivalent of
shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre” – and labelled “its
prejudiced, fact-challenged generalisations an incitement to extreme reaction”.

He asked the commission to consider a “rebuke” of the magazine and
writer “in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the
reckless endangerment to Philadelphia’s racial relations”.

But the mayor, who was travelling in Italy and unavailable for comment last
week, has in turn been criticised for trying to intimidate free speech with
his damning response.

Tom McGrath, the editor, is fighting back. “I applaud the mayor for
asking for an inquiry into the state of racial issues in Philadelphia,”
he said. “The need to have a deeper discussion about race in
Philadelphia is exactly why we ran our story in the first place.

“Like any reader, the mayor is entitled to think and say what he wants
about the story. [But] his statements about the magazine and
mischaracterisation of the piece make me wonder if he’s more interested in
scoring political points than having a serious conversation about the

“Furthermore, his call for a ‘rebuke’ of the magazine by the commission
is rich with irony… the mayor loves the First Amendment – as long as he
and the government can control what gets said.”

Mr Huber’s article lards his personal observations on the state of race
relations in the city with the anecdotes he collected over several weeks in
Fairmount, a gentrifying mostly white neighbourhood of younger incomers and
older residents. All those he quotes are identified by first name only.

Fairmount is separated by a wide highway from North Philadelphia, home to what
he calls “a vast and seemingly permanent black underclass”.

Among the stories he relates is that of “Dennis”, a 26-year-old
teacher in an inner city school, who described an episode after he called a
disruptive young teen “boy” – technically correct, but a term once
used disparagingly by whites to refer to black men of any age.

The child’s stepfather came to the school and accused Dennis of being a
racist. “Dennis apologised, knowing how loaded the term ‘boy’ was and
regretting that he’d used it, though he was thinking, ‘Why would I be
teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist?’,” Mr Huber writes.

“The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it,
except for one thing: the student’s behaviour got worse. Because now he knew
that no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.”

Anna, a Russian-born lawyer quoted was scathing in her comments. “I’ve
been here for two years, I’m almost done,” she said. “Blacks use
skin colour as an excuse. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving
forward… Why do you support them when they won’t work, just make babies
and smoking pot?”

Whites from Philadelphia, Mr Huber notes, are more wary about expressing such
opinions, even if they hold them. Indeed, he argues that many whites are
willing to excuse poor behaviour by African-Americans because of the
country’s recent past.

“Our racial history, as horrible and daunting as it is, has created a
certain tolerance of how things operate in the neighbourhood, an acceptance
of an edgy status quo,” he writes.

John, 87, a retired office worker quoted in the article, showed little such
reticence as he narrated muggings and robberies by blacks. He said that
former black neighbours were “working people, nice people, lovely people”
but then used a common racial epithet and “boy” to describe a
stranger he said had broken into his home.

Mr Huber also describes the experiences of Jen, an architect’s wife, who
insisted on sending her two young children to the local school with a mostly
African-American population – to the surprise and dismay of other white
mothers who went to great lengths to place their children in a “less
black” school further away.

In North Philadelphia, his portrayal was denounced last week as one-sided,
racist, simplistic, insulting and inflammatory. “He is mixing up race
with class and poverty,” Monica Peters, an African-American public
relations professional who lives in the area he describes, told The
Sunday Telegraph
. “You can go to poor white and Latino and Asian
communities in this country and you will witness just the same problems.

“The article is racist and it’s morally unacceptable. He has taken a
small demographic and given the impression that it represents the
African-American community as a whole. Even here in North Philly, one block
can be very nice and the next one you can see these issues.”

Yet the comments expressed by the unidentified characters in “Being White
in Philly” are not so different to those expressed by a fellow
Philadelphian in a fiery speech in 2011 – except on that occasion it was Mr
Nutter, speaking from a church pulpit in response to a spate of attacks by
so-called “flash mobs” of black youths in downtown Philadelphia.

“You’ve damaged yourself, you’ve damaged another person, you’ve damaged
your peers and, quite honestly, you’ve damaged your own race,” he told
the congregation.

He railed against young men in hoodies and low-hanging jeans who take no part
in the upbringing of their offspring, and warned parents who neglect their
children that they would be “spending some quality time with your kids”
in jail.

“The Immaculate Conception of our Lord Jesus Christ took place a long
time ago, and it didn’t happen here in Philadelphia,” he said. “To
fathers: if you’re not providing the guidance, and you’re not sending any
money, you’re just a sperm donor.”

Mr Huber ends his piece with his yearning for “a city in which it is okay
to speak openly about race”. And then he concludes: “Meanwhile,
when I drive through North Philly to visit my son, I continue to feel both
profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape. Though I wonder: am I allowed
to say even that?” His critics would answer that question “Not
like this, no”, it seems.

Source Article from http://telegraph.feedsportal.com/c/32726/f/568301/s/29e6cf14/l/0L0Stelegraph0O0Cnews0Cworldnews0Cnorthamerica0Cusa0C99498190CBeing0EWhite0Ein0EPhilly0EAmerica0Eagonises0Eover0Erace0Eand0Efree0Espeech0Eafter0Earticle0Esparks0Efurore0Bhtml/story01.htm

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