Philadelphia Magazine published two covers for its March issue. The version on the left was for area residents, while the right was distributed in hotels, and aimed at tourists.—Courtesy of NNPA
The hot button topic of race became a subject of hot debate this week in Philadelphia, with the article “Being White in Philly” by Philadelphia Magazine’s writer-at-large Robert Huber. The story, told solely from a white point of view, immediately drew a firestorm of complaints, especially when the magazine’s editor Tom McGrath wrote, “Indeed, among our discussions was a debate about whether we — a magazine with exactly zero people of color on its full-time editorial staff – even had license to report and write on such a sensitive topic.”
“This month’s Philadelphia Magazine cover story is just another example of an ongoing attack on Black Philadelphia,” said Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “Considering the recent census, African Americans could continue to hold political power for years to come, but if they remain economically disadvantaged, they will never be full partners or independent.”
Tasco made her remarks during a long speech Thursday on the floor of council chambers in which she lambasted several local media outlets for what she said appeared to be a concerted campaign against African Americans. Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Maria Quinones Sanchez echoed Tasco.
Bass blasted Philadelphia Magazine, though she refused to say its name out loud – charging that “There is no one on your editorial board who is African American. So, it doesn’t make a difference if you’re talking about race if you’re not talking to different people. You need to be able to dialogue with different people.”
Across the Philadelphia media landscape, the backlash was equally swift. The story drew national criticism from Richard Prince’s Jorunalisms and local online news site “Philebrity,” which offered this added criticism, “To make matters even worse, PhillyMag pulled a classic PhillyMag move with this issue: They printed two covers, one with Huber’s article on the front, and another with M. Night Shyamalan’s wife, Bhavna Vaswani, for the hospitality industry — the idea being that (probably correctly) hotel visitors in Philly would rather not be troubled with PhillyMag’s fairly consistent history of classism and racism, writ large on the cover once and for all.”
“Huber’s article was a poor display of civic journalism on many fronts; and irresponsible in its action of race baiting,” said Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists president Johann Calhoun. “However, one of the most disturbing facts that has surfaced is that Philadelphia Magazine has no minority journalists working full-time on its staff.
“There’s no way a majority-white newsroom covering a majority-minority landscape such as Philadelphia can call itself providing objective coverage.”
Members of Philly mag’s staff also fumed. “Why I Hope You Won’t Read ‘Being White in Philly’ – The story is racist,” wrote magazine staff writer Steve Volk in a bitter response. Several other writers posted similar online responses.
In response, McGrath spoke at length about resolving the magazine’s lack of diversity. “We actually spent a long time talking about whether we had license to write about race with a staff that is all white,” explained McGrath. “Are we even allowed to, sort of, talk about the subject?
“And there is a point that can be made that we don’t, that without any people of color on our staff and that without that perspective we really cannot write intelligently about this, and, I understand that point of view; I disagree with it alternately and it was one of the reasons we decided to run this: I think that regardless of the makeup of our staff, I think that white people have thoughts and feelings about race. Whether they’re deeply offensive thoughts and views, like a couple of the people in Bob’s story have, or whether they are very empathetic views, as a couple of the other people in the story have, I think that we don’t do any favors by pretending that things don’t exist.
“So, I think part of our point in this is to talk about what’s actually out there and then maybe we can go forward in terms of having a better conversation about this. In terms of our own editorial staff, we should have more perspectives of color in our pages and on our website. I’m aware of that and hopefully we can start to address it in some way.”
Huber, however, remained unfazed. “There is no friction,” he said. “I’m OK with my colleagues and what they have to say, and how they feel is utterly legitimate. You know, my piece is about conversation and dialogue, and let’s hear what people really think. So with that spirit, let’s all talk. We decided to do a piece that looked at, from the view of white people, what’s their engagement with Black folk and how’s it going for them and what is it? So, obviously it was a conscious decision to do that.”
Asked if this article’s use of race is to influence sales, Huber says, “I don’t think it’s race baiting and I certainly do not think it’s pandering. That’s certainly not the goal of the attempt; and I don’t think that’s what the piece is. What I was trying to do is to hear legitimate thoughts and feelings from white people.
“I mean I do think that Philadelphia in many ways was — largely is a segregated city — I think whites talk to white; and Blacks talk to Blacks. Now, of course that’s not utterly true but it’s generally true, and that those conversations are different from the conversations that whites and Blacks have with each other. So, I was hoping to unearth some real thoughts and feelings from white folks by hanging out in Fairmount and talking to people and seeing what I could learn.
“That was the goal, and that’s what I did and that’s what the piece is about. Now, did people say some things that are controversial, edgy or even possibly racist? Yeah. But that’s what they said, and so to be true to that – there it is. The goal there is not to bait anybody or to pander, but to present this cross-section of people, and this is what came out when I asked them.”
University of Pennsylvania professor Walter Palmer has taught the foundation courses of American Racism and Institutional Racism and Social Change since 1990, and wholeheartedly agreed with Huber. “I think he nailed it,” said Palmer. “All he simply did was record people he had interviewed. The reality is Philadelphia is racially divided, and it always has been, and it’s never faced the fact that it is racially divided. The fact that Philadelphia is largely African-American or Black now is irrelevant; it is still many people in the seat of power who are not Black (even though you get a lot of Black faces in a lot of places), and that most people, particularly white people, are in denial, and many Black people need white affirmation. Many Black people, particularly middle-class Black people for the most part, don’t want to offend white people—and so the lies are perpetuated by both cultures under the guise of political correctness.”