Blaming the messenger about the elephant in the room

Being white in Philly’ (a response)

5 minute read
A disturbing cover about a disturbing subject.
A disturbing cover about a disturbing subject.
The '60s spoiled me to the future in America. Now that I'm in my own '60s, I see those times with such startling clarity. The 1960s were tumultuous and scary, but the direction that the social, political and scientific winds were blowing seemed so obvious, so inevitable.

The handsome and youthful president declared that we would send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. No problem. The deep-voiced Negro minister from Georgia had a dream of a coming day of justice that everyone agreed made perfect and poetic sense.

By the year 2000 we would have colonies on Mars and our leaders would be elected based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Never would I have imagined that 50 years later the state of racial relations between white and black Philadelphians would be defined by the question of how long to hold the door open at the local Wawa.

Shallow and elitist, but…

Philadelphia Magazine's March cover story, "Being white in Philly"— and let me say from personal experience that being white in Philadelphia is awesome— has been dismissed, denigrated and officially declared objectionable by Mayor Nutter, the third African American in as many decades to be elected twice as chief executive of this great and gracious city. (To read the article, click here.)

Imagine if Philadelphia's political activists 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 article was; it wasn't a racial manifesto— about how some white people honestly, timidly and uncomfortably feel about some black people— well, saints preserve us. We've never heard such thoughts spoken out loud. Not in public, anyway.

Obama's famous speech

During what I thought was a valuable and democratic exercise in free speech last week at the National Constitution Center, more than 200 citizens gathered to talk about the taboo subject of race in reaction to the magazine's story. On this same stage in this same room exactly five years earlier, then-candidate Barack Obama made his famous and defining speech about race in America.

Before the audience and panelists filed in, 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…. Working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds…. In fact, we have no choice."

What many people didn't notice— what the news media failed to highlight in that intensely reported and analyzed speech— was Obama's remarkable candor in describing his own experience in an urban African American Christian church. He mentioned 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."

"'Inappropriate messenger'

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

The fact that everything author Robert Huber wrote in that article is true, or rings true, is irrelevant to his critics. Their quarrel is with his supposed motivation, and his editor's.

One of the featured panelists at the "Can we talk. . .about race?" discussion identified the key dynamic at work behind the depth and scale of 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."

Black-on-black crime

Another panelist, the writer Solomon Jones, cited Philadelphia Magazine's four-decade history of racially provocative cover stories, mentioning "Is Philadelphia going black?" in 1970 and "A tale of two cities" in 2004.

The audience, comprised of equal numbers of blacks and whites, was by no means united in its reactions. From the audience, a young African American male from Philadelphia, who identified himself as Sixx King, 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?" he asked. "Since 2001 there have been more than 70,000 black-on-black murders (in the U.S.). We surpassed in one year the (deaths) from both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We're 13% of the population and yet we're 50% of the national homicides. 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."

"'Sit down at the table'

Nobody said this conversation about race wouldn't make people uncomfortable. In fact, no less an authority than Malcolm X 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," Malcolm said in response to reporter's question not long before his assassination in 1965. "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."♦

To read a related commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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