Why We Wrote About Race

On Philly Mag's article "Being White in Philly."

In many ways, I look at “Being White in Philly,” which appears in the March issue of Philly Mag, as the bookend to an article we ran last September. That story, Steve Volk’s gripping “Welcome to Hell,” examined violence in some of the most dangerous parts of Philadelphia through the tales of two teenage boys—one killed by gunfire in his neighborhood, the other with a mother who so feared for his safety that she sent him to live with his father in the Dominican Republic. “Welcome to Hell” brought to life what it’s like to live in the literal equivalent of a war zone, where thousands have died over the past decade and potentially hundreds of thousands more suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Being White in Philly,” by writer-at-large Robert Huber, looks at some of those same parts of the city, and some of those same issues, but through a decidedly different prism: how middle-class white Philadelphians feel about them. Huber spent several weeks in the Fairmount section of town, on the edge of North Philadelphia, talking to white people there about race and class, and their impact on their lives.

Race, of course, remains the most explosive topic in America—last year’s Trayvon Martin case is the most recent vivid example—and as you might imagine, we as an editorial team had many conversations about whether this piece was one we should do. 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.

In the end, I decided to go forward with the story for two reasons. First, because I believe it is a story. As Huber notes in his piece, when race is written about, it’s generally done from the point of view of African-Americans. There are many just and legitimate reasons for that, but to pretend that white people don’t also have thoughts and feelings about the issue is dishonest. And so it seemed to me that if nothing else, there was something to be learned.

Beyond that, it struck me that not to do this story would be to declare that the problems of Philadelphia’s underclass are theirs and theirs alone. In truth, the fact that nearly a third of African-Americans here live below the poverty line—and in many cases live surrounded by violence—remains Philadelphia’s single biggest issue, the one that drives every other issue, from crime and violence to schools and unemployment.

I’ll let you read for yourself what Huber found when he talked to those white Fairmounters, except to say this: Their stories are varied and complex, in most cases as far from black-and-white as you can imagine. “In so many quarters, even to talk about race is considered racist,” Huber writes in his story. He’s correct in that observation, but I also believe this to be true: To not talk about race is to admit that we can never move forward.

This is taken from Tom McGrath’s editor’s letter that appears in the March 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.