Philly Mag’s “Being White in Philly” Is Really Being Wrong in Philly

I grew up four blocks from 19th and Diamond, and I'm not dangerous.

Robert Huber, a writer-at-large at Philadelphia magazine, wrote a cover story this month titled “Being White in Philly.” Although both he and the story were well-intentioned, that’s not good enough because the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The story has a fatal flaw, and it’s what I call the “Frankenstein Flaw.” It’s when you lambaste the innocent so-called monster but ignore the actual malicious creator. Although the townspeople of Geneva about 200 years ago condemned the no-name creature just as the American people continue to do today, those Swiss mostly ignored, and Americans still mostly ignore, the creator: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

Well, goddamn it, slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and de facto discrimination are this country’s Dr. Frankenstein. And the violent black criminals and the lazy, shiftless young black men that Huber seems fixated upon are the creations. If you disagree, then there’s only one other explanation: Black folks are genetically predisposed to be violent, to be criminal, and to be lazy and shiftless. It’s either nature or (forcibly imposed) nurture.

There’s a right answer and a white answer. Take your pick.

Before I expose other flaws in the piece—which stem mostly from the article’s shallow anecdotes—allow me to address the simmering anger of the white people who are reading this and asking who the hell do I think I am to imply that they’re racist if they don’t answer the question as I would like. Those white people are the very same white people who say that blacks have come a long way and should be appreciative. They also say that, with the 2011 reelection of Mayor Michael Nutter—as well as the fact that we have a black police commissioner, black fire commissioner, black D.A., and black City Council president (not to mention last year’s reelection of black President Barack Obama)—we live in a post-racial Philadelphia (and country).

OK. But if that’s true, answer me this: If you had to go to trial in a criminal case tomorrow and you had the choice to go as a black defendant or a white defendant and both defendants have identical backgrounds, which would you choose?

The answer is obvious, at least if you’re honest. Therefore, in terms of our condition and behavior, race matters today as it has always mattered in America.

• 1619: 20 Africans were sold in what is now Hampton, Virginia
• 1776: One-third of the 56 white signers of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia enslaved blacks
• 1787: The Constitution mandated a 20-year extension of the slave trade and the recapture of runaways
• 1789: The first of 18 U.S. presidents held blacks in bondage (George Washington enslaved nine humans at America’s first “White House” at Sixth and Market right here in Philly)
• 1857: The Supreme Court ruled that blacks are “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”
• March 3, 1859: Two Philly brothers, Pierce and John Butler, held the largest single slave auction in American history when they sold 436 blacks over a two-day period in Georgia
• 1896: Supreme Court ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine upholds racial segregation
• 1954: The Brown v. Board of Education decree that, unbeknownst to most Americans, was not finally implemented until 1999
• 1954: Two men were convicted in federal court of enslaving and whipping black men after they had been “purchased” from county jail officials in Alabama and Mississippi

In fact, it wasn’t until just 49 years ago pursuant to the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, that blacks began to get some real semblance of justice.

But the magazine ignores all of this. And as my grandmother used to say, a lie of omission is just as bad as a lie of commission. However, it didn’t ignore the fearmongering and stereotyping in the use of such terms as “dangerous neighborhood” at 19th and Diamond where Huber’s Temple University son rents an apartment. By the way, I was born and raised about four blocks from there. And I ain’t dangerous. And neither are the guys I grew up with. I’m a lawyer. They’re bus drivers, plumbers, teachers, cooks, factory workers, and city employees. All of us are law-abiding.

It also didn’t ignore the quote from the cops at 24th and Parrish who said crimes in the neighborhood are committed “Mostly … (by) black guys from North Philly.” That’s the same kind of racist nonsense that former D.A. Lynne Abraham espoused in 1996 when she was told that 85 percent of the inmates in city jails are black and was then asked, “Do you believe that blacks commit 85 percent of the crime in this city?” She responded “Yes. I do. I really do.”

I couldn’t believe she said that shit. I was livid. I demanded an apology. When she refused, I proposed that City Council cut the D.A.’s budget by a third, which was the amount by which she had overstated crimes allegedly committed by blacks. As I organized political opposition to her, she finally relented and apologized for “any unintended negative perception” that the proportion of blacks in city jails reflects the crime rate among blacks. She ultimately conceded the existence of racial bias in arrests, bail settings, prosecutions, convictions and jailings.

Oh, wait a minute. My bad. It wasn’t me who made that demand and that proposal and who got that apology. It was the other angry black Michael: then-Councilman Michael Nutter to be exact. Good lookin’ out, bro. To the white readers, that’s black talk. Don’t be alarmed. It’s not Django code. It simply means “Thank you kind sir, with whom I share African ancestry, for your enlightened cultural activism.”

In regard to those cops I quoted above, I wonder why Philadelphia magazine didn’t ask them about their racist views.

Maybe they would have mentioned that as recently as the 1940s, it wasn’t just the department’s brutality against black civilians that was rampant. There was also official racism against its own black officers. James Reaves, who became a cop in 1940 and later the city’s first black captain, pointed out that black cops were barred from driving—and even riding in—police cars. And maybe those aforementioned Parrish Street cops would have pointed out that in 1979, Philly made history when the police department became the first in the country to be sued by the Justice Department for having committed or condoned “widespread and severe” acts of police brutality, almost exclusively against blacks. Maybe they would have discussed the videotaped brutal 1978 beating of the unarmed and surrendering Delbert Africa. Maybe they would have spoken about the 1985 Police Bombing, falsely referred to as the MOVE Bombing, on Osage Avenue, which resulted in the killing of 11 human beings, the destruction of 65 homes, and more than 500 mostly white cops firing more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition into a black neighborhood. Maybe those quoted cops would have said something about Stop and Frisk, specifically that in 2009, 253,333 persons were victimized by this police misconduct and that 72 percent were black, while only 8.4 percent led to arrests.

In addition to the stereotyping and fearmongering, there’s the sensationalizing. Huber writes that, as he was driving past Broad and Lycoming, he saw a “padlocked rowhouse door” and that a “torn sheet covering the window in that door looks like it might be stained with sewage.” To paraphrase Gary Coleman, “What the fuck you talkin’ bout, Willis?” What do you mean “looks like” and “might” and “sewage?” Is such speculative hyperbole necessary? Or is it just plain racist sensationalism? And to add insult to injury, he comments that he “imagines (it’s) not a crack house.” So why even say it then? He also writes about supposedly better, i.e., wealthier, sections of North Broad Street and goes on to equate such “progress” with “gentrification.” Tell that to the 70- and 80-something-year-old widows and widowers who are being priced out of the houses they were born and raised in.

When Huber points out that he lives in Mount Airy “on a mostly African-American block,” he describes it not only as “friendly” but also as “the friendliest street my family has ever lived on … ” Is Fox’s Bill O’Reilly a member of his family? He must be because they seem to think alike. Remember Bill’s compliment to us black folks in 2007, when he described his visit to the famous Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem? He said that “even though it was run by blacks … (with a) primarily black patronship, there was no one … (there) …  screaming M-Effer, I want more iced tea.” I guess all the blacks there that day were the friendly type from Huber’s Mount Airy block.

Philadelphia magazine and Huber missed a golden opportunity to make some headway on race relations. They should have factored in history. And—concerning alleged criminality and laziness and shiftlessness—instead of focusing exclusively on black, they should have considered green, or the lack thereof. In that regard, it’s class, not race. Otherwise, you white folks got a lotta splainin to do about Kensington and Fishtown.