Feature

Race: Can white people be blunt?

Whites in Philadelphia and elsewhere think about race, but they're afraid that talking about it will get them labeled as racists.

Are white people allowed to talk about race? said Robert Huber in Philadelphia Magazine. People in our racially divided city shy away from the topic when talking about our poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods. “One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race.” Sure, whites in Philadelphia and elsewhere think about race all the time, but they fear that addressing the subject out loud will get them labeled as racists. In a series of interviews in gentrifying neighborhoods, I found many middle-class whites alternately fearful of and self-consciously deferential to their black neighbors, but afraid to discuss pressing racial issues with them—the number of young black kids who sell drugs or steal, the undercurrent of black hostility toward white urban pioneers, “how the inner city needs to get its act together.” White people want to participate in the city’s rebirth, and to have “a real connection’’ to our neighbors. But it won’t happen until “it is okay to speak openly about race.” 

You can talk about race all you like, said Daniel Denvir at PhiladelphiaCityPaper.net,but not if you treat black people “like inscrutable extraterrestrials.” Huber’s article provides a very distorted picture of urban race problems; he doesn’t interview a single black person, but only quotes anonymous white people, who either make racist observations about blacks “sitting on porches smoking pot,” or pat themselves on the back for living among drug dealers. No wonder Philly’s black community is outraged by Huber’s essay, said Jamilah Lemieux in Ebony.com. Mayor Michael Nutter wants the state’s Human Relations Commission to charge the magazine with  discrimination for publishing such a “disgusting’’ article. Though Huber cloaks his 3,000-word manifesto in the timid rhetoric of white guilt, what he’s really saying is: “Do you know how hard it is to live among these blacks?’’

Huber, I think, meant well, said Conor Friedersdorf in TheAtlantic.com. Like many earnest white liberals, he seems to believe that “dialogue” can repair the racial disconnect. Too bad that all he gives us through his interviews are “relatively shallow” observations about black people. Critics should understand, however, that “honest interracial dialogue cannot exist without speech that is wrongheaded.” If we are to talk frankly about race, we can’t simply silence those who offend our sensibilities. And “for those who don’t think honest conversation is the way forward, what is?”

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