Monday, March 18, 2013

A Mayor Unhinged

Earlier this month, Philly Magazine published an article entitled "Being White in Philly." Robert Huber roamed the neighborhoods of Philadelphia to explore the beliefs and attitudes of white citizens, some of them crime victims, about living in a dangerous city.  He found residents who are wary and even antagonistic toward blacks, as well as ones with open, tolerant views. Huber concluded by writing

What, I wonder, would that look like? Claire, the widow I talked to in Fairmount who was walking her terri-poos, doesn’t worry about saying the wrong thing in her neighborhood, about offending her black neighbors, because she’s confident of her own feelings when it comes to matters of race. But like many people, I yearn for much more: that I could feel the freedom to speak to my African-American neighbors about, say, not only my concerns for my son’s safety living around Temple, but how the inner city needs to get its act together. That I could take the leap of talking about something that might seem to be about race with black people.

I wouldn’t do that, though, because it feels too risky. In fact, I would no more go there than I would stand out on the sidewalk some Saturday and ask a neighbor how much money he has in the bank.

But this is how I see it: 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 okay to speak openly about race. That feels like a lot to ask, a leap of faith for everyone. It also seems like the only place to go, the necessary next step.

Meanwhile, when I drive through North Philly to visit my son, I continue to feel both profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape.

Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that?

Mayor Nutter was not pleased.   On the weekend of March 9/10, speaking to the annual Madam CJ Walker Luncheon sponsored by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Incorporated, Nutter contended the essay "makes some pretty disgusting and disdainful comments about African-Americans and women in particular. I’ll have some more to say about that in the upcoming weeks — but maybe that person might want to come to this event and see some positive folks doing some positive things."

By Friday the 15th, Nutter was even less pleased and sent to the city's Human Rights Commission a four-page letter in which he "ask(s) that the Commission consider specifically whether Philadelphia Magazine and the writer, Bob Huber are appropriate for rebuke by the Commission in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia's racial relations possibly caused by the essay's unsubstantiated assertions."

It's obviously reprehensible for a public official, the chief executive of a city, to suggest that an investigative piece be squelched in the hope that it has a chilling effect, as the cliche (accurate in this case) would have it.   The mayor is not, as whites would traditionally complain about blacks, over-sensitive.  He is, instead, contemptuous of the First Amendment.  

It is more difficult to criticize Nutter for his critique of the article itself- but only slightly more difficult.  Perspectives on race are complicated matters which vary widely from one individual to another.   It would be comforting if poverty, racial bigotry, crime, or urban deterioration disappeared simply because they're ignored.  Unfortunately, they do not, though Nutter evidently is convinced otherwise.  In addition to trying to bring official pressure upon the writer and the magazine, Nutter labeled the article  "uninformed, ill-advised, ill-considered, uninspired, and thoroughly imaginative."  Here is one of the "lament(s)" about which he presumably is exorcised:

Jen tells me a lovely story: 

She discovered a public pool at 26th and Master in Brewerytown two summers ago. A beautiful pool, with cool slides. There were maybe 60 kids there—black kids—on the day Jen took her young daughter; the kids ranged in age from about five to 12, and there was only one other pa-rent around. Jen stood in the pool holding her hands out, teaching her daughter to swim. Eight or 10 girls surrounded Jen—they all wanted to show her how good they were. One said, “I am the luckiest girl in the world.” And why was that? “Because I live across from the pool.” She pointed to her house. It was a beaten-down row.

“These kids were so happy and sweet,” Jen tells me.

She is warning me, with this story. I’d told her about driving up North Broad Street and how miserable I believed living there must be. There’s a certain arrogance in my judgment, Jen is telling me. I might not know what people are truly experiencing.

As she was leaving the pool that summer day, Jen saw three or four older girls modeling her, with their hands out, teaching the younger ones to swim.

Engage, Jen is saying-—engage people, connect with them, without assuming what their lives are like, or judging them. It’s good advice. Because she’s right—the gulf is so wide that there’s much we don’t know about each other.

Do yourself a favor and read the article; then respond to this post by explaining, as the Mayor asks in his letter, "whether the 'speech' employed in this essay is not the reckless equivalent of 'shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theater."   And extra points are granted if you can explain, additionally, how we've gotten to the point at which so many individuals apparently believe either of two irreconcilable fantasies:  that the election of a black president spelled the end of racism or that reporting negative attitudes of citizens toward black people is an offense meriting suppression by an arm of city government.

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