Against the 'Conversation on Race'

Robert Huber at Philadelphia Magazine is catching probably about the amount of hell he imagined when he penned his piece on "Being White in Philadelphia." Many of Huber's critics are attacking the piece for what it says about race and who he interviewed. That criticism may or may not be fair. Reading through the piece myself, I thought the article's problem was more technical than racial.

Writers who focus on race/gender/sexual orientation are often of the mind that the issues that they are tackling have, somehow, never been tackled before, or if so, have not been tackled "honestly" or "forthrightly" or "candidly." In the arena of race, the notion that Americans "don't talk about race" is a particularly pernicious rendition of this logic. I've never actually found this to be true. On the contrary, there's a lot of literature on the subject -- some of it enlightening, some of it clueless, and some of it racist. The sheer amount of material should, theoretically, raise the bar for "writing about race."

But because Americans actually enjoy yelling about race a great deal, it does not. At this moment, Huber's piece is the most read story on his home site. I am certain his editors are unsurprised. I think I could drum up all sorts of traffic if only I mentioned reparations, Ron Paul and the Confederate flag every other post. I think this is why, with some regularity, we are bombarded with bad journalism premised on getting us to "talk about race."

Robert Huber writes:

I've shared my view of North Broad Street with people -- white friends and colleagues -- who see something else there: New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They're sunny about the area around Temple. I think they're blind, that they've stopped looking. Indeed, I've begun to think that most white people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago. One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race. Many of those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. And if you're white, you don't merely avoid them -- you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.
At the same time, white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it's clear it's a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.

Huber then fills in his piece with various white people (most of them anonymous) offering their thoughts on "race in Philadelphia." As an after-school special on the minds of white Philadelphians, the piece is marginally successful. As an essay on "Being White In Philadelphia" it is a failure. And it must be a failure. Great writing moves from the particular, from the hard details, from specifics out to the universal. (Their Eyes Were Watching God will always trump a thousand alleged "conversations on race.") Like most pieces purporting to be about race, Huber's is lost in a sea of interesting anecdotes that never gel into anything.

This is surprising to me, because Huber is a very good writer. This piece on Bill Cosby is the best article written (among many) about Cosby during the era of the poundcake speech. Anchored to a particular thing, specific reporting, and actual people, Huber is able to tell us something about Bill Cosby, race, and the limits of moral castigation.

No one who wants to write beautifully should ever -- in their entire life -- write an essay about "the subject of race." You can write beautifully about the reaction to LeBron James and "The Decision." You can write beautifully about integrating your local high school. You can write gorgeously about the Underground Railroad. But 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 then to argue internet skinheads.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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