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.)
It’s unclear how many people in the city even care about the magazine controversy. About 50 people showed up for the Human Relations Commission meeting in the auditorium at Girard, though that number drops to about 30 once you subtract the commission’s members, staff, event photographer, sound guy, and two interpreters for the deaf.
The commissioners took seats at a long table on the stage above the crowd, and the hearing began with a statement from the acting chairman, Thomas H. Earle. He assured the audience that the commission respects the First Amendment. “Still,” he said, “we are disappointed that the magazine has chosen to pass up the opportunity to participate in a real dialogue with a larger, more diverse group of residents than what was reflected in its article and to gain a fuller understanding of actual intergroup relations in the extended Brewerytown Fairmount community.”
After that, the commission heard from the public. Almost none of the speakers were there simply because they are outraged at Philadelphia magazine. In fact, they’d avail themselves of any opportunity to get city officials to pay attention to the problems of North Philly and said as much. More than one elderly African American complained about high taxes. One woman complained that the hipster parents in her neighborhood are now holding parent-teacher meetings in “a saloon.” That revelation elicited a visible reaction from one commissioner, former mosque leader Saadiq Abdul-Jabbar Garner.
Mayor Nutter seems to have vastly overestimated the article’s “potentially inflammatory effect” on the city. “I didn’t want to waste my energy dealing with ignorance,” Alex Peay, founder of the Rising Sons mentoring and tutoring program, told the commission. “There are a few things in that article that sort of made sense, too. Because there are some issues going on in our communities. There are kids out there who are selling drugs. . . . There are a lot of abandoned houses, and there’s a big swarm of gentrification going on.” Pat Edouard, also of Rising Sons, made the point even more bluntly—dealing with the city’s problems is more important than fretting over how they’re discussed. “Adults that speak up, black or white . . . instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s racist!’—think. Is it? Or is it real?”
One notable exception to this down-playing of the magazine controversy came from Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia office. After a perfunctory lecture on the importance of the First Amendment, she offered the following: “I’d like to speak as a white person who lives in Philadelphia for more than 25 years. . . . As a white person, I was deeply embarrassed by that magazine article, and that did not speak for me.” The PHRC can rest easy about putting the press on the hot seat. The ACLU may give a nod to the First Amendment, but in this particular instance their heart’s not in it.
Almost an hour and a half in, Mayor Nutter showed up at the meeting. He did his best to sound outraged. “Completely unbalanced piece of psuedo-journalism . . . hateful stereotyping . . . harmful stereotyping . . . self-styled zeal.” Alas, no one was there from Philadelphia magazine to be called hateful by the mayor, and when Nutter was told this he said, “That’s tragic. It truly saddens me.”
The mayor continues: “I believe in the First Amendment as much as any other”—this is demonstrably not true—“but given the nature of the controversy that has ensued it seems to me that you would want to be respectful to the citizens of Philadelphia, even to your readers, regardless of where they live”—Philadelphia magazine sells a lot of copies to white people in the suburbs, in case you didn’t get the hint—“to truly listen to more voices than were heard supposedly in that one particular piece and to demonstrate respect to the folks who are here to hear what really goes on in our neighborhoods. I think it’s a lost opportunity, but that’s life in the big city.”
Nutter left shortly after his speech, so he wasn’t around at the end of the meeting to hear Allison from the Francisville neighborhood tell the commission of her experience living in North Philly. “It’s not about racism. It’s about a sense of community and what we’re going to do about it,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’m going to cry here. I was recently robbed after living there and knowing everyone on my street. And I had over $30,000 worth of stuff stolen. . . . And nothing has been done about it. What was taken from me was the stuff I had, and I had needed, and I had bought a home to be here, to raise a child.” Allison had big plans that had been destroyed. “What was taken from me was my ability to adopt.”
Allison sat down to some encouraging applause, but it seems unrealistic to expect the Human Relations Commission to help resurrect her dream of raising a child in a safe environment. The city of Philadelphia has more urgent priorities, such as making sure the First Amendment isn’t “unfettered” and ensuring ex-cons aren’t subject to employment discrimination. And if Mayor Nutter had been around to comfort Allison, we can guess what he’d tell her: “I think it’s a lost opportunity, but that’s life in the big city."
Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.