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“Being White in Philly”: The fallout continues

 photo PhiladelphiaMagazineMarchcover_zpsb24c27cd.jpg

At the beginning of this month, I was reading “This Week in Blackness” and it highlighted a just onto the newsstands cover story from Philadelphia Magazine. A comment made by Adam B at Daily Kos:

It’s an embarrassing article

Take a look at Philadelphia Magazine’s masthead. Notice anything missing?

sort of summed up for me what I suspected.  

I haven’t seen a copy of this glossy, suburban “city magazine” which primarily targets the upscale (mostly white) suburbs around Philadelphia in quite a few years. My parents, when they were living (and they lived in those suburbs) didn’t subscribe – but some of their neighbors in their all-white (except for them) Montgomery County complex did. Philadelphia is not alone in having a so-called city-zine. Most big cities do. They are ubiquitous these days.

What wound up being a surprise, was that this piece of dunderheaded so-called journalism set off a major internet buzz that went beyond Philadelphia and its suburban environs, and not only sparked a conversation about how to talk about race, and who should be talking about it, when is “race” really about social class and not just race, and highlighted what I call the “chocolate city with vanilla suburbs syndrome” which is not unique to Philadelphia.  

What became even more interesting was that some of the white writers on the mags masthead wrote their own critiques of the piece, ranging from very critical to outright calling the piece racist.  

I figured the outrage would die down fairly quickly, moving on to the next local issue but I was wrong.  

I talk on the phone every Sunday with my 70+ cousin in Philly, who lives in the Germantown/Mount Airy section of Philly, near the city line. She has lived in the same house, which was owned by my aunt and uncle, since I was about 7 years old, and the neighborhood, once mostly white, then black middle class, in recent years is very integrated, with a mix of black, latino, asian and white families.

So day before yesterday we were on the phone for our Sunday chat.

She watches ABC news political talk every Sunday (it is usually on as we speak), and I asked her had she read the article in question.  She said “no”, and just as she was asking what it was about she said “Oh- they are talking about it right now on the tv”.

She held the phone closer to the television and I listened to the show – the editor of Philadelphia Magazine, Tom McGrath, was the first guest, and he was talking fast and defending his choice to run the piece.  He was followed on the show by a few folks discussing it. I searched for video of the program but it wasn’t posted till yesterday.

Inside Story.(it’s not embedding well)

Meanwhile, I decided to take a look at other reactions.  First up were the writers from the magazine that posted it, starting with:

Why I Hope You Won’t Read “Being White in Philly”. The story is racist, by Philadelphia Magazine writer, Steve Volk.

His opening salvo:

Exactly what constitutes racism is a matter of debate. But my own sense is that racism takes many forms and one is a preoccupation with race-seeing skin color before the person, or wrongly assuming a person’s race to be a primary cause of their behavior. I believe the story “Being White in Philly,” in the March issue of Philadelphia Magazine, is guilty of these forms of racism. And this isn’t an assessment I make with any pleasure.

The story’s writer, Bob Huber, is a friend and colleague whose work I’ve long respected. His lament, in this piece, is that whites can’t talk about race for fear of being labeled “racist.” And the story’s stated aim is to print the things white people think but are uncomfortable saying. Problems crop up throughout: No African-Americans are interviewed in the piece, nor are any Asians or Latinos; and the narrative takes place in a small swath of land, along the border of Fairmount, a largely white section of the city, and North Philadelphia, which is predominantly African-American. This gives a story that purports to be broad and authoritative a narrow cast. But I’m going to start by focusing on one early exchange, between Bob and a white Russian lady, who cuts loose. “Blacks use skin color as an excuse,” she says. “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 making babies and smoking pot?”

There isn’t much done to contextualize this quote. And what’s there seems to endorse the Russian lady’s view. “If you’re not an American, the absence of a historical filter results in a raw view focused strictly on the here and now,” Huber writes, which I interpret as suggesting the foreigner has a clearer-eyed view of the moment.

James Fagone, another white writer for said publication takes a different approach:

Philly Mag’s “Being White in Philly” Doesn’t Make Sense as Journalism. How do you launch a frank discussion about race under a cloak of anonymity?

He opens “The March issue of Philadelphia magazine is unfortunate. I saw the issue late last week. I still have sort of a hard time believing it’s real.”

Though he says he felt the piece was “well-intentioned” and that he is a friend of the writer, Bob Huber, he makes this point:

The thrust of the piece seems to be that white people are afraid to talk about race because black people have made them feel uncomfortable talking about race. Therefore we can’t solve problems in the city, because a conversation is impossible. The implication is that this is black people’s fault. Beyond the way this argument turns the reality of racism and segregation on its head, it just baffles me on a practical level: I don’t get why you’d devote 6,000 words or whatever (the story is really long) to explaining why it’s difficult to have a conversation when you could just go and have the conversation.


Hmm. Good point.

The editor, McGrath, has written his own explanation of why he authorized this but I’ll let you go to the link and read it if you want to take the time.  But here are two of the responses to his piece (most have been very negative)

disqus_m2f9xSmrCJ • 6 days ago

Philly Magazine is “a magazine with exactly zero people of color on its full-time editorial staff.” Why are you OK with this?

Mike11052 • 6 days ago

This is such bullshit. Black people- poor, middle-class or rich- live EVERY SINGLE DAY dodging racism.. in school, in their cars, at work, shopping, walking down the friggin street. Can a white person even try to understand that? Who cares what a white person thinks about what it’s like to be black. How patronisingly naive and insulting. Your magazine patronises everyone who is not like you. And hire a black journo for God’s sake. Get off your ass and go out and find one! Have you ever even listed a job classified with the Black Journalists association. There is no excuse, other than inbred, subconscious racism, that PHILADELPHIA magazine does not have a black editorial staffer. A disgrace! Did you bother even to try seek out a black journo somewhere to read your insipid bullshit before you published it? Stop lying to yourself. The article was complete meaningless tripe. I’m white if that matters at all.

Daniel Denvir, who writes for the Philadelphia City Paper, and describes himself:

I write about politics in the U.S. in general and Philadelphia in particular, media, education, race, class, inequality, law and criminal justice, urban/metropolitan issues, immigration and other topics.


 Philly Mag cover: Whites must criticize blacks more

No, it is not an Onion-esque parody of Philadelphia’s most white-bread journalistic institution, a magazine that seemingly hired Gene Marks just because he wrote the jaw-droppingly offensive article “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” for Forbes.

But before I continue, I must first disable the story’s booby trap, a defense built into its very DNA: the idea that “in so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist.” Huber is not a brave man, and his premise is totally false. People will only think you “simply discussing race” is racist if you, like Huber, treat black people like inscrutable extraterrestrials whose moral shortcomings might be responsible for their own poverty…

Indeed, I’m a white guy who writes about race and frequently talk to black Philadelphians–and often, gasp, about race. Black sources have never protested frank questions about race for articles I write about poverty and educational inequity, police brutality and mass incarceration, or neighborhood segregation and (yes, largely black) gun violence. Huber’s idea that white people are uniquely aggrieved because they are muzzled in discussions of race (why are they allowed to say the n-word and not me) is not a new one. It’s more that Huber wants to have a particular sort of conversation about race. Namely, he “yearn[s] for….the freedom to speak to my African-American neighbors about…how the inner city needs to get its act together.” Like, you know, an arguably racist conversation about race.

Yes, that’s certainly not the sort of conversation about race most blacks or sensible whites (not to mention unmentioned Asians or Latinos) want to have.

Field Negro, one of my favorite bloggers who is a Philly homeboy weighed in, as did Michael Coard, criminal defense attorney, and community activist

Philly Mag’s “Being White in Philly” Is Really Being Wrong in Philly I grew up four blocks from 19th and Diamond, and I’m not dangerous.

The story has a fatal flaw, and it’s what I call the “Frankenstein Flaw.” It’s when you lambaste the innocent so-called monster but ignore the actual malicious creator. Although the townspeople of Geneva about 200 years ago condemned the no-name creature just as the American people continue to do today, those Swiss mostly ignored, and Americans still mostly ignore, the creator: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

Well, goddamn it, slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and de facto discrimination are this country’s Dr. Frankenstein. And the violent black criminals and the lazy, shiftless young black men that Huber seems fixated upon are the creations. If you disagree, then there’s only one other explanation: Black folks are genetically predisposed to be violent, to be criminal, and to be lazy and shiftless. It’s either nature or (forcibly imposed) nurture.

There’s a right answer and a white answer. Take your pick.

The Philadelphia Tribune wrote an editorial “Race-baiting at Philly Magazine“, and the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ) has issued a statement.

Other responses:

Anatomy Of An EPIC FAIL: How PhillyMag’s Race-Baiting Cover Story Went Over Like A Fart In Church This Weekend

All Hip Hop: Being Black While Reading ‘Being White In Philly’

Ebony: Being White (and Racist) in Philly

Next City’s Lori Tharps, who lives in Mt. Airy  wrote “Being White in Philly,” A Story of Fear”

I heard about it early on Sunday morning. I had tweets, email messages and the academic equivalent of “Oh, no they didn’ts” blowing up my phone. The Philadelphia Magazine cover story, “Being White In Philly,” was making the rounds of the academic community that I, a black Philadelphian and assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, inhabit. After reading the story for myself – I actually ran out to buy a copy of the magazine to get the full effect – I understood immediately why my world was outraged.

Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia summed it all up in his remarks:

“It makes some pretty disgusting and disdainful comments about African-Americans and women in particular. I’ll have some more to say about that in the upcoming weeks – but maybe that person might want to come to this event and see some positive folks doing some positive things.”

Speaking at the 27th Annual Madam CJ. Walker Awards Luncheon, a National Coalition of Black Women event on Saturday, Nutter challenged the story’s author, Robert Huber, “to come to this event and see some positive folks doing some positive things in this city.”

“Taking care of their business, taking care for their families,” Nutter continued. “Employed. Educated. You might want to learn the rest about this great city and its diversity. And so l I think everyone should be offended that someone would have the audacity to let out of their mind and into print, such disgusting, ignorant comments.”

I doubt Philadelphia Magazine will make any major changes, though they may finally hire a black or poc writer or staffer.  

I am glad to see that this dreck was challenged immediately and vociferously, from folks of all colors, and classes.

Good job folks!  

Cross-posted from Black Kos


  1. kalmoth

    I tried reading the article in question but just couldn’t get to the end of it. It’s not just dripping with implausible self-denial of bigotry, it’s also shittily written.  

  2. anotherdemocrat

    If this writer & magazine wanted to talk about this subject – really talk – they could have. It’s as if no one read this before it was published. Because if you read that stuff out loud, surely even someone as self-centered as this can hear how completely insane that sounds, right?

    If you we’re here you’d see my eyes rolling.

  3. zenor

    Haven’t looked at Phl Mag in 25 years.

    Because, after a while, my sense was, they just changed the month every month and the year every 12 months and nothing on the inside.

    I for got there was a Phil Mag.

    Race in this city? To discuss?

    There are some lifelong bigots, mostly white.

    I dread talking with them. I don’t wanna hear it.

    Black people certainly know exactly the feelings of all the different attitudes around. It isn’t common place to talk about such things with strangers. Mostly, we read each other’s hearts or eyes or body language.

    It used to be hell here. It is much better. The young people are much saner now, everywhere. This is known.

    Much more we will not see for another generation or 2. I could give a tip to the ignorant. Nobody likes racists except other racists. Nor thugs, slugs, drugs or bugs.

    There are prejudices everywhere. And we all have some. But justice and equal opportunity and economic fairness is key to helping us all move past the old aches and ills. We’re actually united on that, except for our despicable ‘leaders’ and information manglers.

  4. and, given what’s said about it, I don’t plan to do so any time soon (or later, either!). Sounds like dreck.

    And yet… there is a point here. There are questions that are worthy of discussion.

    1) Why don’t people talk about race? Are the answers different for people of different races?

    2) Who does talk about race?

    3) Do people ever talk about race with people who are of a different race? What happens?

    Now, the article’s answers sound like bull****. But the questions are there.

    So: I’ll answer for me:

    1) I am not sure why not; the only places I talk about race are here and on daily Kos, mostly only in diaries written by the author of this one. Certainly some of the reason is fear of being offensive. Without casting any blame on anyone for reasons why this is so, I think it is pretty clear that race and racism are highly charged topics.

    2) Clearly, the authors of that magazine article talk about race. Lots of overt and covert racists talk about race. On the other end of the spectrum, many liberals decry racism, but they don’t really talk about race. In fact(again, other than diaries here and on Kos) I’ve not seen much real discussion of race and racism in a non-historical, non-theoretical context. For example, there are articles about how Blacks waited (on average) a lot longer to vote in 2012 than Whites did. Well, that’s certainly race-based conversation. The sane people say it’s racism, the bigots say “who gives a ****?” and … well, that’s not much of a conversation!

    3) See above

    Another question is what the conversation should be like. I think we have to go beyond the script of:

    “Here’s an example of racism” which gets reactions of “That’s horrible! Our society sucks” from one group and “That’s not racism, stop blaming White people for everything!” from another group.

    What should the conversation be like?  

  5. rb137

    Based on the masthead — they surely do have the white people opinion covered. Too bad they aren’t actually talking about white people…

  6. creamer

    misery or sucess. Actually trying to understand and empathize takes way too much time and energy. Lots of white liberals look at minority issues, aknowledge they exist, and flip on American Idol or Dancing with the Stars in their 2500 sq ft house in the suburbs.

      I don’t know if it’s an American thing or a human thing, but we embrace everything that is good about america, and totally absolve ourselves from anything ugly that is part of our national identity. The “melting pot” is a ruse.

  7. blue jersey mom

    it’s just awful, and it is not journalism. How can anyone write about an issue this important and sensitive from one side only? It says a lot that something like this was even published. Where’s the editorial review? Many of the on-line comments about the article are also pretty awful.

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