Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter joined the chorus condemning Philadelphia Magazine’s “Being White in Philly” article for depicting blacks as “lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, and largely criminal”. And he called on the city’s Commission on Human Relations to consider a rebuke.
Nutter managed to inflame not only the rightwing blogosphere, but also many liberals wary of government meddling. The charges of free speech suppression are overplayed: the commission’s powers are, after all, limited to more speech. What is more significant is that Nutter – a black mayor who is presiding over the closing of 23 largely black schools and a rising city prison population, and who has repeatedly defended Philadelphia’s controversial police stop-and-frisk initiative – managed to change the subject.
It is good that so many people hate a racist article (see my Philadelphia City Paper criticism). But the low-income black people Robert Huber’s article rudely caricatured through anonymous white sources as “people [who] won’t work, just make babies”, while “sitting on porches smoking pot”, are harmed more severely by corporate-induced poverty and state-sanctioned marginalization than by bad journalism.
Indeed, the entire premise of Huber’s article, which recklessly conflates poor black folk and all black folk, is that Philadelphia Magazine is courageous because to many, “simply discussing race is seen as racist”.
This premise, of course, is false: America loves a stupid conversation about race, and this local drama is now receiving national media attention ranging from CNN to Monday’s New York Times. Meanwhile, Huber and editor Tom McGrath, experts in counterfeit bravery, persist in refusing to see the deluge of criticism as anything other than a confirmation of their idea that having conversations about race is, indeed, difficult.
Exclusively focusing the “conversation about race” on mean words lets the concrete political and economic forces battering low-income black people in America off the hook. And it also, minus any actual substantive issues – like school segregation or mass incarceration – makes for terrible writing.
“No one who wants to write beautifully should ever – in their entire life – write an essay about ‘the subject of race’,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the Atlantic:
“You can never write beautifully about the fact of race, anymore than you can write beautifully about the fact of hillsides. All you’ll end up with is a lot of words, and a comment section filled with internet skinheads and people who have nothing better to do with their time than to argue internet skinheads.”
The article and much of the ensuing commentary reflect the same idea: the central problem is something called “race relations” that will be solved by a “conversation”, a generations-long misunderstanding that “Black America” and “White America” (Latino and Asian America go unmentioned) should hire a professional mediator or psychotherapist to hash out. It is, as Tom Sugrue explains in this historical account of the phenomenon, the notion that “racial inequality was fundamentally a moral and psychological problem that would be resolved only when Americans’ hearts and minds were untainted by prejudice.”
Thanks to this framework, episodes such as Oprah’s 2005 allegations that she was treated poorly at a Hermes shop in Paris get more attention than the question of why exactly schools serving millions of youth, disproportionately black, go underfunded.
The idea’s appeal is enormous. Take the popularity of Martin Luther King’s dream that his “four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” compared to his persistent calls to overturn institutionally-imposed inequality. Indeed, conservatives delight in twisting cherry-picked words from King into criticism of measures like affirmative action.
Reducing racism against black Americans in general to racist ideas in individual white people’s heads omits the concrete problems confronting low-income black people in particular. Huber – who “yearn[s] for … the freedom to speak to my African-American neighbours about … how the inner city needs to get its act together” – wants a discussion that fails to address anything that’s important.
Philadelphia has the highest rate of deep poverty of any big American city, a segregated school district targeted for privatization by wealthy hedge fund managers, a social safety net weakened by long-term federal austerity and now decimated by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, the highest murder rate of any big city, and a bloated criminal justice system sending large numbers of those same low-income black people denied a good education straight to prison.
Residents of Philly’s so-called “inner city” are, to be sure, somewhat more aware of these problems than Huber could be.
And things are getting worse: people of colour lost far more than whites during Wall Street-induced recession, the wealth gap between black and white Americans actually doubling. Median household wealth for African Americans now stands at $4,995 – 1/22nd the average wealth of white households. Whites, who lost just 16% of median household wealth, are not only wealthier but hold less of their wealth in their homes. Hispanics lost 66% of their household wealth, African Americans 53%, and Asians 54%. Whites were also less likely to be sold high-risk and high-cost subprime loans.
The “conversation about race”, as Randall Kennedy pointed out in a 2001 article on President Bill Clinton’s legacy, is often a distraction.
Clinton initiated a high-profile national conversation on race in 1997, but took little action to assist “impoverished people, disproportionately coloured, who are locked away in pestilent and crime-ridden inner cities or forgotten rural or small-town wastelands, people who are bereft of the money, training, skills, or education needed to escape their plight,” writes Kennedy:
“For those below it, he offered chastising lectures that legitimated the essentially conservative notion that the predicament of the poor results primarily from their own conduct and not from the deformative deprivations imposed on them by a grievously unfair social order that is in large part a class hierarchy and in smaller part a pigmentocracy.”
He also signed a welfare “reform” bill that disproportionately impacted low-income black mothers. It also fuelled a drug war that has resulted in mass incarceration.
Clinton’s “conversation” compares unfavorably to the penetrating analysis offered by the Johnson administration’s 1968 Kerner Commission, written amid nationwide riots, which documented abusive policing, entrenched poverty, and abysmal and segregated housing, warning that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
Census data shows that this is still largely true today: metro Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles remain profoundly segregated thanks to explicit business and government policy. Take a look at the maps. If Mayor Nutter is really concerned about “race relations” in Philadelphia, his administration should act swiftly to stabilise neighborhoods like Frankford and Grays Ferry that are quickly flipping from white to black and thus perpetuating segregation along newly-drawn lines.
Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath insists that “to not talk about race is to admit that we can never move forward”. Some critical racial justice matters will necessarily spark white fear that economic survival in post-industrial America is a zero-sum game. But moving forward also requires addressing issues that have the potential to unify rather than divide. Black people are disproportionately hurt not only by racism, but also by all policies that favour the rich and penalise the poor.
Americans of all hues would benefit from turning that political-economic order on its head.
• Editor’s note: the article originally stated $4,995 as African-American median household income; this was amended to household wealth at 10.15am on 29 March 2013
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.