There have been various responses to this article and since the heavy weights have responded either through publication or through other public venues I think I will try to give my vantage point on this piece out of Philadelphia magazine. There are three assessments of this piece that I would like to propose. I would love to interject some hope but before hope there is painful truth and so here we go.
When White Privilege speaks, this is how it sounds…
As I read Robert Huber’s article I quickly caught some key things. The article begins on page 59 and quickly we recognize a prime example of privilege. Huber starts the article out by describing his son’s apartment near Temple University and quickly shares how a police officer mentions that the location where his son’s apartment is located is a bad spot. As he moves through the area in question he notices a home with a padlocked front door with window dressing that looks like a stained sheet. Who knows what or who lives behind the soiled sheet! Privilege may not be evil, but it does reveal one’s position in society. It also highlights options one has within a community—one option is to gaze upon another with pity. Pity in many cases is neither good nor evil—it is simply a response to an unfortunate predicament. Pity looks down and in many cases may prompt one to extend help. However, in some instances it takes the form of an article in a high end magazine.
I wonder if Huber is really concerned with what is behind the proverbial ‘stained sheet’. While reading this article I was reminded how the Biblical text describes how lepers were treated in 1st Century Palestine. White flight is the by-product of what many perceive as the modern day leper. The kind of thinking that I describe jumps out on page 59 when he says, “And if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid them–you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.” The statement is surrounded by the writer’s assessment of a community in paradox.
The real question is this; how can a world class university exist in the same community where homes are in squalor conditions and crime run rampant? Privilege is the answer. The opportunity to come in and leave and to know that you can leave is privilege. To drive through the neighborhood and make your way back to Mt. Airy unscathed is privilege. To have a friendly conversation with a police officer where there is no assumption that you either are, or could be a suspect in a crime. To wonder why others won’t just enjoy the American dream that’s theirs to grab hold off—this is a by product of privilege.
“Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist?” This statement found on page 60 hit a nerve for me. It sounds innocent enough, but I am familiar with these kinds of statements. It’s a cousin to the infamous, “I have a black friend and so I can’t be racist” statement. A twenty six year old teacher in his first year calls an eighth grader “boy”. The student is African American and takes offense. The stepfather gets involved and there is a meeting between teacher, student, and principle and stepfather. The teacher apologized, but Huber injected the teacher’s thinking; the aforementioned statement about proximity and profession. I don’t believe that the teacher is racist, but what I do want to consider is the assumption that many make. Many falsely believe that somehow living or working in close proximity to those who are the ‘other’ exempts them from critique.
The teacher is asking for slack, some room or grace on the ‘boy’ thing. He gets some grace and should. Does the teacher believe that he is doing us a favor by teaching in the inner-city? It deserves mentioning that blacks are not ultra-sensitive about the race thing, but we are sensitive enough to know the smell of racism or we at least know how to sniff out an environment before letting our guard down. The student behaves even worse after the meeting. Huber feels the need to include this—why? Is he saying that the student and father used the race card and it backfired on them? I don’t know–I hope not. I grew up in the Philadelphia public school system and white, black, Asian students cut the fool all day long, even after parent-teacher conferences. It is called being an adolescent.
Concerning proximity, I think Huber hits the nail on the head with the last sentence on page 62, “Whites moved out.” This is undeniable. The reality of white flight from Philadelphia is still underway and the economic impact is a citywide phenomenon. A greater question is why? Why did they move to the suburbs? These are the questions that Philadelphia Magazine needs to ask…research that! The article suggests that there are hoards of hyper sensitive blacks who are unwilling to have this ‘conversation’. If there were kids behind the ‘stained sheet’ that Huber speaks about how might they view living so close to a world class education knowing that access to that education is out of reach?
The ‘Great White Hope’ syndrome is all over this piece. As the article quickens to the end, we see more and more of this syndrome. There is the shop owner Ben, an industrious guy whose description seemed more inline with a pioneer staking out territory among crack heads and dealers. Brave Ben will eventually colonize the community and gentrify this place so that others can come through and enjoy the city again. Then there is Jen, who is trying to convince young urban professionals to send their kids to a predominantly black elementary school. Who knew the key would be a high end urban professional sending their kid to the neighborhood school? Now it’s the ‘in’ thing. These examples are provided to build a narrative that White flight destroyed the city and White re-entry is going to save the city.
I tried to shed a tear as I read the following statement,
The problems seem intractable. In so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist. And so white people are stuck, dishonest by default, as we take a pass on the state of this city’s largest black inner city and settle for politely opening doors at Wawa, before we slip back to our own lives.
I tried to shed more tears as he went on,
We’re stuck in another way, too. Our troubled black communities create in us a tangle of feelings, including this one: a desire for things to be better. But for the sentiment to come true–for it to mean anything, even–I’ve come to believe that white people have to risk being much more open. It’s impossible to know how that might change the racial dynamics in Philadelphia, or the plight of the inner city.
Big Poppa to the rescue! I was set back by the statement, “Our troubled black communities…” Huber sounds paternalistic when he gets to what he really wants to say, “But like many people, I yearn for much more: that I could feel the freedom to speak to my African-American neighbors about, say, not only my concerns for my son’s safety living around Temple, but how the inner city needs to get its act together.” There it is–the inner city needs to get its act together and Huber suggests that this is a conversation about race? He ignores economics and conflates several issues into one and passes it off as a much needed conversation about racial tension.
In an attempt to discuss race what Huber really wants to say is that Black folk need to straighten up their mess so his son doesn’t get mugged while receiving the advantages of life inside the bubble. While he moans about Wawa doors and tries to give racism a soft side, Black mothers and fathers are trying to survive, many burying their children or visiting them in prison. We need a conversation about education disparity, jobs and sub par health care. The conversation about race is always going on for Blacks. It is a never ending dialogue, but mostly among ourselves because many Whites are tired of hearing about race. Some have the privilege to compartmentalize race, but color is often times judged immediately.
Somehow I wonder if men like the one that wrote this article are aware that Black men and women understand the conditions of our community. There are churches, civic organizations, other religious groups working hard to address teen pregnancy, illiteracy, addiction, violence, etc. Much of our efforts are with few resources, but the effort to transition a generation goes on despite the opposition. We are hopeful that the issues of race, class and ethnicity will be dealt with. However, in order to deal one has to be willing to admit that white privilege is real and structural racism is not the latest excuse from black folks for their condition.
A question that many in the Anglo community may be asking is how do we move forward if all the above is true? The following list may help with moving forward:
Respect – Simply put, don’t discount someone else’s experience as trivial and inconsequential. This is key when a black person recognizes ‘racism’. What you perceive as nothing is just that…your perception. Privilege can cause one to discount a black person’s awareness of racism, whether subtle or blatant. Examples of this might be: a prolonged gaze, the clutching of a pocketbook or the absence of persons of color within the management structure of a company. Respect what black folk are saying instead of designating the claim as hyper sensitivity or ‘victimization’. Respect must be mutual.
Understand the nature of poverty – One of the things that I missed in Philadelphia Magazine’s piece, “Being White in Philly” was an understanding of the nature of poverty and its pervasiveness. Poverty is not simply the absence of wealth, it is often the absence of ideas and solutions. People in poverty exist within a unique context and until you understand perhaps you shouldn’t call it a race issue. Understanding someone’s context requires more than a quick drive through the neighborhood with windows up, only engaging with those who fear the ‘others’.
Talk with leaders already involved in the work of restoration – This may be difficult to comprehend for many outsiders, but there are actually people working hard to solve many of the issues related to poverty. There are churches, mosques, civic leaders, and community leaders who know the folks in the community and are acutely aware of how poverty operates. Talk to these people first before suggesting solutions that may be more appropriate for the suburbs or other contexts. I have noticed in the past, that suburban churches who have a genuine heart for the city seem to want to come in as a savior to rescue poor folk. ‘Teach them how to fish and you’ll never have to feed them again.’ This kind of oversimplification is more harmful than helpful. Poverty is often systemic and entrenched and requires years of recovery.