When Philadelphia Magazine writer Robert Huber penned his recent article “Being White in Philly,” he was expecting that the work would open a dialogue on race relations in the City of Brotherly Love.
Instead of an honest conversation on the topic, Huber and Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath were soundly criticized for it.
Addressing controversial issues is probably one of the greatest points of risk-taking for a journalist. In the piece, Huber wrote, “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 OK to speak openly about race.”
Monday night, about 200 people filled the auditorium at the city’s Constitutional Center where the editor apologized and indicated that it wasn’t his intent to hurt anybody but that he didn’t regret publishing the story.
Huber told the gathering that he wanted to explore “how white people relate to black people in the inner city, or don’t relate to them.”
Some critics opined that the article dwelled on negative experiences that whites had with blacks that often fit into stereotypes.
According to reports, journalist Solomon Jones, serving as a member of a panel for the forum, didn’t slam the article as much as he ripped Philadelphia Magazine for its history of racial insensitivity. People’s Emergency Center president Farah Jimenez pointed out that the magazine has an all-white editorial staff and was not the right messenger to a story encouraging racial dialogue.
It was another hit on the messenger and not the message.
While most of the venom was directed at the magazine, editor and the article’s author, it was reported that there were several heated exchanges between some black audience members and black panelists about crime and personal responsibility in African American communities.
It may not have been the communication that Huber was hoping for, but it was a conversation and it was an education.
In 1995 Philadelphia played host to a “Hope in the Cities – Healing the Heart of America” event. It was a series of meetings and events that evolved around honest conversations on racial history, reconciliation, responsibility and the need to forge new relationships.
Though the effort died out in Philly, it still continues every year in Richmond, VA. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War and was a leading exporter of slaves to southern plantations for more than a century.
There are three key elements to the annual event. First, everyone with a stake in new community relationships must be invited to the table and be actively encouraged to participate in the process of transformation. Second, there must be an honest acknowledgement of a shared racial history. This can lead to forgiveness and a new level of understanding so that all can work for change. And third, each individual must take personal responsibility for the change process.
The City of Brotherly Love would do well to take a lesson from Richmond.
By the way, Hope in the Cities is a program of the international organization known as Initiatives of Change. Formerly known as Moral Re-Armament, it is the organization founded by Pennsburg native Rev. Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman and Philadelphia was the city where he started his ministry.
Hope in the Cities needs to come back to Philly.