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I was a panelist at Philadelphia magazine’s “Can we Talk … About Race” event at the National Constitution Center on Monday evening, and I did not relish the prospect of challenging editor Tom McGrath and writer Robert Huber for choosing to publish “Being White in Philly,” another in a decades-long series of race-based articles that I believe the magazine has used to generate publicity.
I took no pleasure in looking out at an audience peppered with black journalists and pointing out that not one of them has ever been hired as a full time staffer at the magazine. I was not pleased by the fact that in 2013, we are still discussing the same problems we faced in 1913. Nor was I anxious to point out how illogical Robert Huber’s reasoning for writing the story seemed to be (he said he was trying to learn something by talking exclusively to whites about the issue of race).
But despite the unpleasantness of those truths, I spoke them Monday night. Not in a column, not online, but face-to-face, because that’s the way they needed to be spoken. Now, as far as I’m concerned, it’s time to change the subject. Why? Because while McGrath and Huber’s media tour continued with Tuesday’s “conversation” with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, life for the rest of us went on. And in the real world, where people pay mortgages and raise children, work jobs and hope for the best, race is not at the forefront of our minds.
In the real world, real people have honest conversations with one another, and the dialogue is not about what drives us apart. It’s about what brings us together. It’s about love and loss, bills and responsibilities, parenting and marriage, health care and home. The dialogue is about the things that make us human. The dialogue, in short, is about life.
In the days and hours ahead, I will be asked about Philadelphia magazine and its seeming obsession with race. I will be asked how black people, and indeed all people, should respond. My answer, quite simply, is this: We should go forward. We should live our lives. We should do our jobs, and as we endeavor to accomplish all of these things, we should excel. More importantly, we should pull together, because even before this silliness became the subject of every discussion, we were clearly too far apart.
If we were anywhere near each other we would clearly see the truth of our city. It is a truth that is evident, not in the one-sided diatribes of individuals and publications, but in the faces of the least of us. Our truth is borne out in the daily lives of those who experience poverty in the shadow of staggering wealth. Our truth shouts from the heights of skyscrapers whose shade falls over our blight. Our truth is scrawled on the walls of shuttered factories in once-thriving neighborhoods.
The truth of our city is simply this: On a day when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Philadelphia has the most deep poverty of any big city in the nation, our airwaves, Twitter feeds and water cooler conversations were focused on this nonsense about race.
Just as it has always been, race is a distraction. It causes us to give time and attention to those who deserve neither. It pushes us to expend energy on arguments that solve nothing. It convinces us to treat a gaping wound like nothing more than a paper cut. And while we are slowly crushed under the weight of our city’s expanding poverty, we argue for apologies that will not be forthcoming.
And so, to the 200,000 Philadelphians who live in deep poverty, I offer my personal apologies. I have allowed myself to be distracted from the real issues that have placed you in that condition. The national economic recession is partly to blame, as is the loss of our manufacturing base, which some trace to the city’s business tax structure. The drug scourge which ravaged communities and destroyed families is partly to blame. The inattention of those of us who believe we’ve “made it” is partly to blame.
For years we have allowed our attention to be diverted by nonsense. That’s probably because we prefer not to look. We don’t want to see children who can’t focus in school because they’re hungry. We don’t want to see parents who feed their children potato chips because they can’t afford anything else. We don’t want to see seniors who live on the streets because they don’t have anywhere else to go.
Starting today, I promise to see you, no matter what the distraction. It’s my deepest hope that the rest of our city will follow suit. Perhaps then, against all odds, we’ll finally begin to see change.
Solomon Jones speaks at Philly race chat http://sfy.co/dFrS