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.
What’s his life like? Who’s he working for? A few weeks later, I have dinner with Paul in South Philly and ask him if he’s ever thought more about the kid who offered him Oxycontin.
“No,” Paul says. “It’s easier to put it out of your mind and not think about it. The truth is kind of a dark thing.”
Huber concludes his article by arguing that we need more open dialogue across racial lines so that people of both races can discuss real economic and social issues without anxiety and might begin to better understand one another. “We need to bridge the conversational divide so that there are no longer two private dialogues in Philadelphia—white people talking to other whites, and black people to blacks—but a city in which it is okay to speak openly about race. That feels like a lot to ask, a leap of faith for everyone. It also seems like the only place to go, the necessary next step.”
How might this work? Back to Jen:
Jen tells me a lovely story: She discovered a public pool at 26th and Master in Brewerytown two summers ago. A beautiful pool, with cool slides. There were maybe 60 kids there—black kids—on the day Jen took her young daughter; the kids ranged in age from about five to 12, and there was only one other pa-rent around. Jen stood in the pool holding her hands out, teaching her daughter to swim. Eight or 10 girls surrounded Jen—they all wanted to show her how good they were. One said, “I am the luckiest girl in the world.” And why was that? “Because I live across from the pool.” She pointed to her house. It was a beaten-down row.
“These kids were so happy and sweet,” Jen tells me.
She is warning me, with this story. I’d told her about driving up North Broad Street and how miserable I believed living there must be. There’s a certain arrogance in my judgment, Jen is telling me. I might not know what people are truly experiencing.
As she was leaving the pool that summer day, Jen saw three or four older girls modeling her, with their hands out, teaching the younger ones to swim.
Engage, Jen is saying-—engage people, connect with them, without assuming what their lives are like, or judging them. It’s good advice. Because she’s right—the gulf is so wide that there’s much we don’t know about each other.
Engagement, shared experience, dialogue. Is this how whites might connect on race? Or is this just totally naïve and another expression of their privilege in the American social order?
The article has prompted some intense responses, most notably from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter who called the piece a “pathetic, uninformed essay.” Robert Huber met with African American leaders in the community last night to discuss criticisms of the article and the editorial policies of the magazine. He said he was “sorry to anyone who was hurt by the article,” but that his intent was to examine ”how white people relate to black people in the inner city, or don’t relate to them.”