Philadelphia Magazine’s March 2013 cover story is stirring controversy throughout Philadelphia. “Being White in Philly” is the product of an investigation conducted by one white man in neighborhoods around Philadelphia and begins in the streets west of Main Campus.
The story opens with author Robert Huber picking up his son – a sophomore at Temple – from his son’s apartment at 19th and Diamond streets. Huber wrote that he feels antsy about letting his son live in the North Philadelphia neighborhood that is home to some of the poorest people in the city.
Determined to figure out what white Philadelphians really think about many of the predominantly African-American and poor neighborhoods dispersed throughout the city, Huber conducted a series of anonymous interviews with white people, many who live just south of Temple – in Fairmount.
The result of Huber’s reporting was not only a cover story and and four-page spread, but also an outcry from the Philadelphia community accusing the article of racism, misinformation and irresponsible journalism.
Even Mayor Michael Nutter got involved. In a letter addressed to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, Mayor Nutter calls the article a “pathetic, uninformed essay” and implores the commission to consider rebuking Philadelphia Magazine and Huber.
In response to the commotion, forums have sprung up in multiple locations within the past week. The National Constitution Center hosted “Can we talk…about race?” on Monday, March 18, for a sold out audience.
The panel discussion was comprised of article author Huber, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Solomon Jones, CEO of Techbook Online Corporation Christopher Norris, President and CEO of People’s Emergency Center Farah Jimenez and founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center on American Racism and Social Justice Walter Palmer. Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath moderated the event.
Norris, Jimenez and Palmer seemed more understanding of the article than Jones. Jones is a Temple alumnus who said he was offended because of his history with the mentioned “black” neighborhoods and his subsequent insight into the communities. Jones lived around Temple at 20th and York streets and in Brewerytown at 25th and Oxford streets.
Palmer, opposing Jones, proclaimed he was shocked that other people were shocked by the article because strained race relations are nothing new.
“Many white people are afraid to say something because they fear they’ll get called racist,” Palmer said. “Many blacks are afraid to say anything because somebody may say you’re using the race card.”
Being honest with one another is the first step in addressing the issue, Palmer said.
Multiple audience members, including journalists, expressed disgust with the style of reporting. Many voiced concern because of Huber’s use of anonymous sources. Others went further to say Huber did not follow the principles of journalism, but instead composed a story based entirely off of his own opinions.
A broader social problem arose out of the discussion: the distinction between race and socioeconomic status. Jimenez turned the tide of conversation by saying the real issue is people “mix up race with culture with socioeconomics,” which she proclaims leads to the equation of “minority” and “poor.” In her opinion, an additional problem with “Being White in Philly” is that the messenger, a magazine article, is an improper medium for the wider issue.
A question and answer segment following the panel discussion led to a heated debate between audience members and panelists, climaxing with one black audience member taking Huber’s side by accusing North Philadelphians of being lazy and addicted to drugs. McGrath said he does not regret publishing the article, but he did offer an apology: “I’d like to say I’m sorry…hurt feelings were certainly never our intention at all.”
The public outrage and Nutter’s letter caused the Human Relations Commission to schedule a public meeting addressing “Being White in Philly” on April 18 in the Fairmount/Brewerytown area.
Kait Lavinder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.