Stuck in the genteel

Racism and my nice small town newspaper

5 minute read
A street corner with a store front and Victorian rowhomes underneath a partly cloudy sky in Swarthmore.
Just another day in the neighborhood of Swarthmore, where something insidious lies. (Photo by Amy Beth Sisson.)

My home of Delaware County had a moment of fame as the setting for the popular mini-series The Mare of Easttown. The show skirted around racism, both the overt and insidious kind found in Delco communities. A certain kind of genteel racism became an evident pattern in my town Swarthmore’s local paper, The Swarthmorean. The editors stepped down recently, thanks to the genteel racism of “nice white people.” As a white resident, I am seeking lessons from exploring these events that are culminating right here in my neighborhood.

Closer to home

Swarthmore, a town of around 6,300, is fortunate to have a local newspaper. For years the tone was light; The Swarthmorean preferred to publish columns such as the “roving photographer” rather than grapple with anything that might reflect poorly on the town. The paper has a history of minimizing stories about racism. For example, The Swarthmorean characterized two cross burnings in the town as “Halloween mischief” in 1960.

In recent years, the culture at the newspaper changed and the content grew more substantial. In November 2019, The Swarthmorean hired the accomplished white writer Rachel Pastan as editor. (Pastan’s novel, Alena, was named an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review.) When she started at the paper, she spoke of working to give all a sense of belonging.

In July 2020, the paper hired Satya Nelms as associate editor. It was the first time the paper had hired a Black person as editor. In her introduction to readers, Nelms, who has experience facilitating conversations around race and discrimination, said she was attracted to the job because “this publication seeks to support and lift up the community it represents.”

Under these new editors, the paper published unflinching articles about racist incidents in the schools and the impact of zoning on Swarthmore’s small Black community. In April, I contributed to that change with “Confronting Swarthmore’s Painful History,” n article about my project developing an annotated bibliography about the history of white harm in Swarthmore.

Two steps back

In May, the publishers of The Swarthmorean veered back towards the superficial. They met with Pastan to tell her they were responding to complaints from anonymous readers about “too much” content about race and asked her to write fewer of these articles. She discussed this with Nelms, who would later resign. Nelms published a letter explaining her decision: “… Rachel [Pastan] informed me that our publishers have decided that this group exists in critical enough mass that they would like Rachel and I to stop writing so many heavy and racially charged pieces. They would like us to return to the fun stuff...”

On the Swarthmore Town Center page on Facebook, most supported Nelms but some defended the publishers. They aren't racist, they argued, as if racism was an indelible personality trait. Some accused Nelms and her supporters of villainizing and defaming the publishers.

In the May 13 issue, the publishers issued a statement claiming that Nelms's views were a misinterpretation. Pastan then publicly announced her resignation, explaining that she couldn't prioritize the comfort of white readers over the important stories of the Black community. She notes that the publishers didn't express any interest in further discussion. They didn’t leave the door open for reconciliation.

On June 24, the publishers dug in further, saying, “A community newspaper, at its best, is a reflection of the community it serves. It can inform, educate, and on occasion even influence its readers, but ultimately it is, or should be, a mirror held up before its readers.”

Really? This seems a profound abdication of their responsibility. The Swarthmorean (as recently as 1996) reflected the community when it referred to Swarthmore’s historically Black neighborhood with the offensive term the “Scrapple Hundred.” (Scrapple is a Philly area “delicacy” made from pork scraps combined with cornmeal and fried, often to a crisp.) Newspapers “reflected their community” when they were complicit in, and profited from, slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching. Is The Swarthmorean holding up a mirror after all? Can the readers who defended the publishers and the publishers themselves see the whole of their reflections?

The publishers' statement also obliquely blames Nelms and Pastan for sowing division by characterizing their statements as “us versus them.” They blame the editors for leaving without owning the ethical problems the publishers created when they asked Nelms and Pastan to dampen their coverage of race. The publishers also engage in a kind of “whataboutism.” They cry, what about the good we do in Chester? But publishing more about Chester, a predominantly Black city with around a third of its residents under the poverty line, doesn’t give them a free pass. We "nice" Swarthmoreans seem to find it easier to be white saviors to Chester than confront our own shortcomings in our own backyards. I wish the publishers had taken the courageous position and refused to pull back on publishing meaningful stories about race and injustice in our community rather than trying to please white people who were feeling uncomfortable.

People are complex. While the publishers are supporting local journalism, they are simultaneously harming the Black neighbors and community right here at home. As Nelms says, "Swarthmore does not occupy a bubble wherein racism doesn’t exist. It lives here too." The important next step when a person takes hurtful action is to seek repair and restoration. I hope the publishers do this and ultimately show us who we are, what our shortcomings are as white residents, and how we can be better, but their most recent statement gives me little hope that they will.

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