Can an Honest Conversation About Race Be Inoffensive?

A controversial Philadelphia Magazine story raises that question by anonymously airing the racial views of white people.
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In Philadelphia Magazine's March cover story, Robert Huber grants anonymity to various white residents, probes their views on race, and faithfully conveys their answers, even the racist ones.

Why?

His article "Being White in Philadelphia" starts from these premises:

1) Most whites have stopped paying attention to the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods in Philly due to queasiness about race. 2) Whites nevertheless think a lot about race due to interracial encounters that end in confusion, misread intentions, or bruised feelings. 3) Whites are unnatural, self-censoring, and overly polite as a result. 4) Their self-consciousness and hypersensitivity may signal progress, but is problematic too: public discussions of race are "one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color." 5) That's understandable, given historical realities; but race is an issue for white people too. 6) A less careful approach that frankly aired white perspectives could broaden the conversation, a prerequisite for getting whites invested in addressing problems so many of them currently won't even engage.

Huber concludes that moving forward, "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." Is he correct? Knowing almost nothing about Philadelphia, I won't try to evaluate how its whites and blacks interact, what Philadelphia whites are thinking, or how race relations in that city might be improved.

But I can report on the furious backlash against the magazine article. Mayor Michael Nutter has likened it to shouting fire in a crowded theater and has asked municipal authorities to investigate. Jamilah Lemieux, an editor at Ebony, wrote that the piece is "racist" and "terrible," and implies that its author is counting down the days until "the 'hood is less dense with its original inhabitants." Two colleagues of the author excoriate his article on the magazine's Web site: 1) Steve Volk argues that the piece is racist insofar as it is preoccupied with race, "seeing skin color before the person, or wrongly assuming a person's race to be a primary cause of their behavior." 2) Says Jason Fagone, "I don't see how you're going launch a frank discussion of race -- the stated goal of the piece, and a worthy one -- under a cloak of anonymity." And Daniel Denvir ends a lengthy Philadelphia City Paper takedown by suggesting that Huber's article brazenly strokes the "pathetic prejudices and insecurities" of its magazine's elite readership.

The Free Speech Question
Let's start with what needs saying most. Even if every critic of the article is absolutely right, even if it is twice as offensive as they say, Mayor Nutter, given his position and responsibilities, is disgracing himself by so much as questioning whether it ought to enjoy 1st Amendment protection:

In a letter, Nutter tore into the magazine and the story, which quoted anonymous white Philadelphians about their view on race and has been attacked for promoting negative stereotypes and not including the views of minorities. At Mayor Nutter's request, the city Human Relations Commission will conduct an "inquiry" into race relations in the city, following Philadelphia magazine's widely criticized cover story, "Being White in Philly." He also called for a "rebuke" of the magazine and writer, Bob Huber, saying that while he recognizes the 1st Amendment protects "the media from censorship by the government," free speech is "not an unfettered right."

"This month Philadelphia Magazine has sunk to a new low even for a publication that has long pretended that its suburban readers were the only citizens civically engaged and socially active in the Philadelphia area," Nutter wrote. He called the piece "pathetic" and said it didn't rise "to the level of journalism."

"I ask the Commission to evaluate whether the 'speech' employed in this essay is not the reckless equivalent of 'shouting, "fire!" in a crowded theater,' its prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations an incitement to extreme reaction," Nutter wrote. Quite plainly, the article is nothing like shouting fire in a crowded theater -- a dubious analogy that ought to be retired anyway -- and by threatening the possibility of state sanction, Nutter is violating a natural right, transgressing against the First Amendment, chilling future interracial dialogue, and undermining a basic liberty, free speech. It is ironic that he is doing so in the name of protecting a minority group, because oppressed minorities of all types rely on the inviolability of the 1st Amendment more than anyone, and would be most vulnerable if Nutter undermines it. He remains free to disparage the article, but should apologize to the author, the publication, all Americans, and minority groups especially for implying that there is any question about its legality.

A Good or Bad Premise?
The article's critics focus on what they regard as flaws in its execution. That's a legitimate approach. But I'd be curious to hear more about what Philadelphian observers think about Huber's premise. Is it true that most white Philadelphia residents avoid engaging pressing issues due to racial anxiety? Is there value in airing attitudes about race -- including offensive, insensitive and even racist ones -- so that we have an accurate picture of reality, or so that they can be refuted, or so that white people more fully participate in addressing vital issues? Is needless divisiveness and taboo-weakening the only effect of airing such views? Is there some middle ground?

My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the few critics I've found who actually took the premise to task:

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."

It's characteristically astute to observe that Americans talk a lot about race, and that lots of the talk is premised on the notion that it's never been tackled "honestly" or "forthrightly" or "candidly." But the constant calls for "real" racial dialogue aren't explained by traffic hungry magazine editors -- they're the result of a deliberate, institutionalized effort to encourage "real" racial dialogue.

Pomona College Magazine describes how it went down at my alma mater: "The Day of Dialogue was originally designed as a grueling, six-hour event in which first-year students were encouraged to talk frankly about racial issues. Students were first divided into two discussion groups--students who identified themselves as people of color in one group and those who identified themselves as white in the other--before being reorganized into mixed-race groups for further discussions. The idea was to relate personal, emotional experiences and to leave intellectualizing at the door. The reality, as the event organizers soon discovered, was a highly charged discussion..."

This sort of thing was pretty common circa 1998 at liberal arts colleges. "Dialogue" was used as a verb. Weekly events were premised on the notion that we hadn't yet had an "honest" or "robust" conversation about race/gender/diversity, and that no good "anti-racism ally" would refuse to participate in the next go round, however tense. My take on the merits of that approach is too complicated to relate here. Suffice it to say that, for better or worse, pursuit of frank, interracial dialogue was established (especially in the minds of educated white liberals) as the enlightened way forward. Best as I can tell, that belief is now widespread in journalism and politics.

The Consequences of a Flawed Article
I read "Being White in Philadelphia" in evaluation mode. Its premise (whether I agreed or not) struck me as interesting and plausible: maybe a frank airing of white views on race would be informative and valuable -- let's see where this goes. I finished the article wishing someone had better executed that premise. Why is the recent immigrant from Moscow treated as if her dearth of context or experience in the city makes her a more credible source? How would relatively shallow interviews with sources in a narrow swath of the city get us reliably to what being white in Philly is like? Why write that all the race stories are utterly unique when some of them verge on banal stereotypes? Wouldn't we get more complex portraits if the interviewer had pressed his subjects more? Finally, if the premise was that frankly airing white views is helpful, shouldn't the conclusion explain how airing the views of these interview subjects might help? 

Some interviewees were interesting. Did reading about them make white Philadelphians more open to addressing important issues that they've allegedly ignored, as was implied by the theory of the piece?

I cannot see how.

There were good parts of the article too. With a good edit, it could've been a much stronger piece. By all accounts, the author has done excellent work in the past, including on the subject of race.

That's actually what worries me.

A talented journalist with experience writing about race began from a defensible premise, earnestly tried to tackle a fraught subject in a way that he thought would improve public discourse, and failed. That he ought to be criticized for the flaws in his work goes without saying. But the mayor of his city demanding an investigation? It underscores something that every journalist knows. We're all vulnerable to publishing dud pieces -- to trying hard, getting it right most of the time, but failing once in a while -- and while it's never pleasant to be excoriated in a blog post that is dead on in its critique, the consequences of publishing a dud are magnified wildly if you're writing on certain subjects -- the perilous ones that could plausibly result in a viral outcry or an advertiser boycott or calls for your actually being fired from your publication.

Race is one of those subjects. 

That isn't entirely unreasonable. It is fraught like few other subjects in America; the taboo against racism serves us well in most ways; and it ought to be called out in a healthy public discourse.

But if honest interracial dialogue is essential to moving forward as a country, as many Americans believe it to be, it is counterproductive to heap furious scorn on well-meaning people, whatever their race or profession, who try to participate but do so with suboptimal skill or sophistication in a given instance. Honest interracial dialogue cannot exist without speech that is wrongheaded, speech that is prejudicial, even speech that is unwittingly racist. If it were otherwise, there would be no need for the dialogue. The race problem would already have been solved.

Certainly there can be no honest interracial dialogue sans speech that offends, if the masses of Americans are to participate in such exchanges (as opposed to a small group of like-minded elites acculturated to exquisitely sensitive speech norms that are designed to minimize offense). Constructive criticism of pieces like the one Huber wrote is warranted and desirable. But what about the subset of Huber critics who are self-righteously shaming him or, worst of all, calling for him to be sanctioned by agents of the state? Do they too believe that what America needs is an honest conversation about race? Do they see that they're disincentivizing it? For those who don't think honest conversation is the way forward, what is?


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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