The campus of historic Girard College in north Philadelphia contains a number of impressive marble edifices, penned in by a high iron fence that separates it from the rundown neighborhood. Stephen Girard, a French immigrant who fortuitously arrived here in May 1776, was said to be America’s wealthiest man when he died in 1831. He bequeathed his estate to found the college, which had the admirable goal of educating fatherless boys along with the unfortunate stipulation that those children be white. After decades of litigation and numerous protests—Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the gates in 1965—the college accepted its first black student in 1968. Now Girard’s student body is predominantly black.
If Girard is a monument to the city’s racial progress, that makes it an odd place for the city government to launch a racial inquisition—an investigation of Philadelphia magazine for the crime of journalism.
On April 18, the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission held a meeting to examine the controversy surrounding Philadelphia’s March cover story, “Being White in Philly.” The author, Robert Huber, went around the Fairmount and Brewerytown neighborhoods near Girard and asked all manner of white people about racial tensions in these gentrifying areas of North Philly. The piece was by no means flattering to white people. Huber quoted them doing everything from using the n-word to wrestling with their consciences for failing to help 12-year-old black children selling drugs in their neighborhood. The article wasn’t above criticism, and Huber himself seemed abundantly aware of this. “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?” he wrote.
The answer to Huber’s question, said Mayor Michael Nutter, is an emphatic “no.” Nutter released the following statement:
I therefore request that the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations . . . 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. . . . The First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right, and notwithstanding the First Amendment, a publisher has a duty to the public to exercise its role in a responsible way. 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.
There are many stories that the national media find uninteresting. One of them, surprisingly, turns out to be the mayor of a major city ordering an investigation of a city magazine for its political content. The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission has broad authority to investigate various complaints and impose penalties. Even if the city’s actions are blatantly unconstitutional, costly administrative proceedings can tie up accused offenders for years (see “The Sensitivity Apparat,” February 4, 2013).
Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission has an illustrious history. It was the first body of its kind in the country, founded in 1951, and was at the center of helping resolve the city’s considerable racial tensions through the ’60s and early ’70s. In the late ’80s, the commission pushed the city for ordinances protecting gays. But the justification for the commission’s existence has been fuzzy for decades. The commission’s slick PowerPoint presentation blandly states that “in the ’90s the PHRC continued to hold hearings.”
In fact, the commission has been defining discrimination down for years. It spent over a year determining that the owner of Geno’s Steaks violated no laws with a sign asking customers to speak English. It crusaded against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority for transgender discrimination because riders must check whether they are male or female on their ironically named “transpasses.” The commission has also been enforcing a city law forbidding employers from asking job applicants about their criminal records.
And now it’s going after Philadelphia. To its credit, the magazine isn’t playing along. A few days before the April 18 meeting, Philadelphia editor Tom McGrath sent the Human Relations Commission a polite letter informing them that the magazine would skip the meeting. (McGrath had already moderated a discussion with Huber and critics at the National Constitution Center.)