Monday, March 04, 2013

Caught, Can We Get a Witness?

Astrophysicist... or Black astrophysicist?  Philadelphia Magazine lets you know white peoples' thoughts.

The City is all atwitter about Philadelphia Magazine's sensationalistic cover story "Being White In Philly."  Reactions to the story are pointedly negative, and for good reason.  At worst, the story is described as a central casting conservative indictment of political correctness as the protective veil of the welfare state.  That gives the author, Robert Huber, and the suburban cow-tows at Philly Mag a bit too much credit.  The story is not a polemic, it's a disjointed mess.  More accurately, it's a purely lazy, disconnected series of interviews with white people lamenting their inability to talk about race while proving terribly bad at it whenever they try.   The author editorially acquiesces to their feelings with such unconscious ham-handedness I was surprised nobody mentioned that "they have a lot of black friends."

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and said "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  The speech is so famous, and King so hagiograph-ied that invoking it may seem simplistic.  Worse, maybe it's hyperbolic, especially in a comments-section-driven era of extreme discourse.

Fast forward 50 years, and Philadelphia Magazine made it known that Huber (and by proxy, the editors), the vast majority of his interview subjects and by inference, white people across Philadelphia, rue the day such a dream was voiced.  They wish nothing more than to ramble inconclusively about whether or not we need to use skin color as a meaningful descriptor of their fellow citizens... in order to sell magazines.

That's pretty much all the article is - rambling.  A bunch of people say "some black kid stole a chair from my porch this once" or "black neighborhoods have low graduation rates."  There are man-on-the-street interviews where Huber meaningfully records that "black guys whistle at me, white guys don't."  Interspersed is a bunch of meandering commentary by the author and his subjects about whether or not blackness is what's important here.  "Not that it matters.... but maybe it does ... but if it did could I say anything... I don't know."  On and on and on.

What's the message here?  Not that "there's a problem talking about race."  The message is that "people who believe race determines behavior are not sure why they run into problems talking about race, and a bunch of other people seem not to be sure why they are being probed for their opinions on blackness."

Huber's work is a lazily written reason to put some 100+ point font on the cover of Philly Mag, draw sales and provoke blog posts like this one.  It's a sophomoric series of anecdotes about Philadelphia's descent into poverty, drugs, segregation, violence and every other social ill you can think of, and the main message is "do you think that maybe this is related to blackness... or something?"  There's no attempt at explaining the correlations between race and class.  If "show me, don't tell me" was the MO, the analysis would be a bit more trenchant than some ramblings about pangs of guilt and uncertainty about North Philly's ills on a drive to his son's apartment at Temple.  Who knew white people were so lazy?  I thought that was black people!  Quick, what do seven randomly selected white people think?

Robert Huber, and sympathizers city-wide, here's my message for you - if you wonder aloud whether or not it's OK to discuss race in Philadelphia, you are contributing productively to a discussion.  If place race* first in any discussion about human issues, like poverty, violence, education, you are doing it wrong.  Doing so is dehumanizing.  Plain and simple.  My message won't sell your magazine, but it would have saved you the trouble of having to account for your half-baked article.

*-"race" being a distinct concept from "racism"

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