People across the ideological spectrum are agitated over this Philadelphia Magazine article by Robert Huber entitled , “Being White in Philly: Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said.” The article centers on anonymous interviews with white people describing their “honest” views about race, often not stated publicly according to the author. Huber describes the genesis of his article as follows:
A few months ago I began spending time in Fairmount, just north of the Art Museum. Formerly a working-class enclave of row homes, it’s now a gentrifying neighborhood with middle-class cachet and good restaurants. I went to the northern edge, close to Girard Avenue, generally considered the dividing line from North Philly, and began asking the mostly middle-class white people who live there, for whom race is an everyday issue, how it affects them.
As you might expect, Huber gets a raft of inflammatory and outright racist comments from people such as Anna, “a tall, slim, dark-haired beauty from Moscow getting out of her BMW”:
‘”I’ve been here for two years, I’m almost done,” she says. “Blacks use skin color as an excuse. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving forward. … It’s a shame—you pay taxes, they’re not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot … Why do you support them when they won’t work, just make babies and smoking pot? I walk to work in Center City, black guys make compliments, ‘Hey beautiful. Hey sweetie.’ White people look but don’t make comments. … ”
But he also elicits seemingly more thoughtful (if self-absorbed) responses from a young white mother named Jen who has recently enrolled one of her own children in a public school near her home that is 74 percent African American. Trying to ascertain why more white parents don’t opt for the predominately black school, Huber describes:
Another mother told Jen: “I didn’t want to be the first”—in other words, the first to make the leap to Bache-Martin. “It takes a special person to be first.” Another told her: “Not everybody is as confident as you.”
Sipping tea in Mugshots on Fairmount Avenue, Jen rolls her eyes over the nut of the problem: Unfounded fear. Groupthink. A judgment on a school without even setting foot in it. “I wouldn’t like to imply that it’s about anything else,” Jen says, but of course it is: race.
Another younger white man named Paul who recently fell on hard economic times also offers some hints of possible cross-racial understanding based on shared experiences (again somewhat devoid of the context of other people’s lives). After being approached by a 12-year old black boy to possibly buy Oxycontin, Paul tells Huber about the event:
“I got laid off in October ’08 and was out of work for six months. I had to find money—it gave me a different perspective. And it seemed this kid was just trying to make money. He was just trying to get by. I come from a different world—I don’t think I’ll ever have to sell drugs. I did have to beg for a job as a waiter at 25—that’s as low as it would go for me.”
A man of perspective, Paul, a very evenhanded guy. But that night, something dawns on me: Confronted with a drug dealer in his new neighborhood, Paul understood that the guy had to find a way to get by. That he was struggling. That he had made an economic decision. But the “guy” who wanted to sell Oxycontin to Paul was achild—one probably in seventh grade.