-“…if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid [poor and dangerous black neighborhoods]—you do your best to erase them from your thoughts… At the same time, white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.”
1) Susan, student- lost her BlackBerry in a biology lab at Villanova, and Facebooked class members asking if they “happened to pick it up or know who did.” A black student in the class responded: “Why would I just happen to pick up a BlackBerry and if this is a personal message I’m offended!” Susan responded that she had Facebooked many class members. The black student replied: “Next time be careful what type of messages you send around and what you say in them. Susan worried about her school’s “perceived lack of welcome to African-Americans” then went out of her way to be nice to the black student afterwards.
2) Dennis, math teacher- While in Dennis’s first year of teaching, a black male eighth grade student got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, they confronted each other, and in a heated exchange Dennis called the student “boy.” The student’s family accused Dennis of being “racist,” the principal defended Dennis. Dennis apologized, and understood “boy” is historically loaded, but wondered, “Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist?” The student’s behavior then got worse, because he knew that no matter how terribly he behaved the school would do nothing to punish him.
-“My rowhouse in Mount Airy is on a mostly African-American block; it’s middle-class and friendly—in fact, it’s the friendliest street my family has ever lived on, with block parties and a spirit of watching out for each other. Whether a neighbor is black or white seems to be of no consequence whatsoever.”
-“…our carefulness [in dealing with racial issues] is, in fact, at the heart of the problem.”
3) Anna, law student from Moscow- “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. … ”
-“If you’re not an American, the absence of a historical filter results in a raw view focused strictly on the here and now.”
4) Panamanian woman- convinced there is a “moral poverty” among inner-city blacks.
5) Unnamed Fairmount resident, female- Blames herself for items being stolen from outside her house, such as a grill, pumpkins, flowerpots, trash cans, and porch chairs.
6) Bob, writer- Tells a story about how “I went home one night from the bar and two guys smashed my face into the cement steps of my house… A few days later I got my wallet back in the mail—they had thrown it in somebody’s mailbox.” He acknowledged that the attackers were black, saying, “Not that that matters.”
-“Not all the crime” in the neighborhood is caused by blacks. “But that’s the perception, and it’s generally correct.” Then cops from comment (7) support that observation.
7) Author asks police officer who commits crime in the neighborhood, and officers says “[m]ostly” by “black guys from North Philly.”
8) Claire, middle-aged woman- Author asks Claire if racial dynamics have changed over time. “It’s mostly white people,” she replied, “so there’s no dynamic to change.” Author asks Claire if she is more careful about what she says when speaking to black people. “No,” she said. “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” Claire says, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.”
9) Paul, 29, architect- tells a short story about a 13-year old kid who tried to sell him Oxycontin. Paul told him no. Author asked Paul if he worried about being in the wrong neighborhood. “No,” Paul said. “…[I]t 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.” The author doubted this economic explanation because the person selling the drug was a child.
Huber offers a plain description of racial unrest in the 60s caused by police brutality against blacks, riots and destruction of stores, the resulting loss of business, and white flight.
10) John, 87- Has seen the city’s demographic change, having lived on the same block since the age of five. After WWII, John says that “blacks from the South, with chips on their shoulders,” moved North. John said they trashed their housing, and that the result “looked like Berlin after the war.” John has been mugged twice, had his house broken into, losing coats, money, Christmas presents and his father’s gold watch. He describes numerous other acts of crime and intimidation, but says, “Oh, I have no problems with blacks.” He spoke fondly about black neighbors, saying “They were working people, nice people, lovely people. I hated to see them move.” John doesn’t leave his block by himself. He tells a story of walking downstairs to his living room and finding that someone had come in through the front door. “It was a nigger boy, a big tall kid. He wanted money.” Huber writes, “It’s a strange moment, not only because of the ugly word, but because of John’s calm in delivering it, as if it is merely fact, one that explains the vast changes in his world.”
11) Jen, mother of two elementary school kids. Most parents in the neighborhood want their kids to go to the white, middle-class school named Greenfield. Jen sent her kids to a 74% black school named Bache-Martin instead. Many people told Jen that they had concerns about sending their children there. Jen described their mentality as “Unfounded fear. Groupthink. A judgment on a school without even setting foot in it.” Jen worked very hard to reach out to other parents from the school, and to convince parents from her neighborhood that Bache-Martin is actually a good school, then more enrolled. Jen speaks very fondly about black children that she meets. She insists that there should be more engagement between people of different racial backgrounds.
12) Ben, 38- lived in an all-black neighborhood. There’s “tons of great neighbors,” including people who work three jobs, welfare recipients who sell drugs. Ben describes a black neighbor that used to be friendly, then went to jail, and came back mean. The ex-con threatened Ben, but then ended up back in jail. One of Ben’s black friends implied that Ben could have been at risk if the ex-con hadn’t been put back in jail.
13/14) Eileen and Bruce, retired schoolteachers, now on the civic association. They describe how people from the black neighborhood north of them tend to stay in their neighborhood. “At Halloween,” Eileen says, “that’s the only time we see them. Lot of little kids from the other side of the tracks—African-American kids. People still give them candy.” “People get upset,” Bruce then says. “We used to have a parade on Sunday afternoon, kids would get nicely dressed up, and kids from up there”—he points north—“would come barely dressed up.” “At least dress up,” Bruce says. “Unless they’re working here, most of them don’t come in this direction. They seem happy to stay in their little lot, as it were.”
-“…. In so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist.…”
-“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 that 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. But as things stand, our cautiousness and fear mean that nothing changes in how blacks and whites relate…”
-“… 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. That I could take the leap of talking about something that might seem to be about race with black people….”
-“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.”
As the above shows, the article was a blend of common sense, valid criticism, and personal experience. With the exception of John’s use of the racial epithet, there was nothing objectionable in the piece. Anna’s remarks were no different than Bill Cosby’s famous indictment of lower-class black culture. The bottom line is that Huber and his interviewees made the same types of critical observations regularly made by sociologists, pastors, politicians, and ordinary people in barber shops. They said what many people of all races, particularly whites, actually think. Moreover, the people hHuber interviewed were not of one voice.
“Being White in Philly” Summarized
Fourteen people were interviewed or quoted in the piece. Also, The author talked about how we talk about race. That is of course important, but his remarks contained nothing that could be called a “perverse generalization.”
Eight out of fourteen were basically politically correct and said nothing remotely critical about race: Jen was entirely favorable and sympathetic towards black people, and encouraged more intergroup dialogue. Susan was very sensitive and concerned that she may have offended a black classmate. Claire said she’s fine talking with all types of people and that race doesn’t matter. Paul felt sorry for a 13-year-old who was trying to sell him drugs, and offered the economic deprivation excuse for the child’s behavior. The Unnamed female Fairmount resident didn’t say a word about race; she just blamed herself for having things stolen from around her home. Ben, who lived in an all-black neighborhood, said he has “tons of great neighbors,” shared one story about being threatened by an ex-con, and said nothing critical about any person or group beyond that. Bob said he was attacked and robbed by two blacks, but that their race didn’t matter. Eileen said black children come into her neighborhood for Halloween, and that was all.
One comment was neutral and basically sociological: The unnamed Panamanian woman said there is a “moral poverty” among inner-city blacks.
Two made observations about bad behavior: A police offer said that most neighborhood crime is committed by blacks from a nearby neighborhood. Bruce said that his neighborhood would have a Sunday parade, which people dressed up for, and that he thought it was disrespectful for blacks from a different neighborhood to show up without being dressed up.
Anna critically commented on behavior and attitudes that she found offensive or harmful, and made generalizations about groups that she had experience with. Anna said blacks use discrimination “as an excuse,” referred to blacks in her neighborhood as “not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot,” and complained about unwelcome remarks. Those were observations about experiences that she did not attribute to all blacks or the entire black community.
Dennis used the word “boy” when he was breaking up a fight, and was sorry for using that term in the heat of the moment. Aside from that, he said nothing critical about racial groups or behavior; he just couldn’t understand why anyone would think that an inner-city teacher would be racist.
Finally, the one remark that was legitimately offensive. John, who is 87 years old, used a racial epithet, which Huber denounced as “ugly.” He also said that southern blacks moved north with a “chip on their shoulder.” John also said that he had “no problems with blacks” as a group, and spoke fondly about black neighbors.
You Shut Your Mouth when You’re Having a Conversation with Me
The Mayor described the article as a collection of perspectives from “fifteen white people who have used isolated negative experiences to draw perverse generalizations that the author then ascribes to the belief system of Philadelphia’s entire white population.”
However, four of those interviewed did not describe any “negative experience” related to race. After closely evaluating the article, a few facts are clear: Eleven of those interviewed either did not describe a “negative experience” or described only specific negative incidents. Whether they also drew “generalizations” is a factual question. By definition, a description of an incident –by itself- is not a generalization. In common understanding, a generalization requires language that generalizes.
If the common understanding of the concept of generalization applies, then only three interviewees made what could plausibly be defined as generalizations: Anna said blacks use discrimination “as an excuse,” referred to blacks in her neighborhood as “not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot,” and complained about unwelcome compliments and cat calls. Those were observations about experiences that she did not attribute to all blacks or to the entire black community. John said that southern blacks moved north with a “chip on their shoulder.” He also said that he had “no problems with blacks” as a group, and spoke fondly about black neighbors. Finally, an unnamed Panamanian woman said she believed there is a “moral poverty” among inner-city blacks. Whether these three remarks are each “perverse generalizations” is doubtful.
Nutter does not offer any quotations to indicate that Huber actually “ascribes” any of the two arguable generalizations “to the belief system of Philadelphia’s entire white population.”
Of the fourteen people interviewed, only two make patently offensive remarks. Dennis used the word “boy” when he was breaking up a fight, and was sorry for using that term in the heat of the moment. Aside from that, he said nothing critical about racial groups or behavior; he just couldn’t understand why anyone would think that an inner-city teacher would be racist.
John, who is 87 years old, used a racial epithet, which Huber denounced as “ugly.”