By Natalie Adams, Outreach Intern
On Monday, June 22 and Tuesday, June 23, the University of Pittsburgh hosted “Making the Global Local: Human Rights Cities Conference & Workshop” sponsored by the Global Studies Center / UCIS, Center for European Studies, & the Departments of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh, in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Human Rights City Alliance*. The invitation-only conference featured a keynote lecture open to the public entitled “Tackling Structural Racism and Discrimination and Achieving Equality: The Role of Cities.” On hand to deliver the keynote was Paul Lappalainen, scientific advisor to UNESCO’s European Coalition of Cities Against Racism. Though informative, the lecture was general and made no reference to southwestern Pennsylvania, the conference’s focus region. Lappalainen stated at the beginning of the keynote that he typically delivers it to a Swedish audience, hence the nonspecific Civil Rights era film clip he used to begin, comprised mostly of footage of Martin Luther King, Jr. and not much else. While the insight and opinions presented in the talk are of great value, the conference organizers might consider selecting content more specific to the host city in the future.
Lappalainen’s perspective is not to be discounted. As a Swede born in the United States, educated both in the States and in Sweden, and working in Sweden for decades, he is able to understand racism in different contexts. He contributed to a 700+ page report entitled “The Blue and Yellow Glass House: Discrimination in Sweden,” which debunks the assumption that the country is a paragon of human rights and equality. He maintains that Sweden deserves this reputation in its foreign policy but struggles to implement human rights domestically. The Swedes have exported human rights for decades, yet did not adopt legislation against racism until 1994. The first “modern” anti-racism law came in 1999 (Lappalainen did not elaborate on what constitutes “modern”). The bulk of the lecture addressed institutional racism in general and in specific reference to this singular nation. I was certainly interested in learning about the Swedish people’s denial of racism as something that only afflicts the former Axis powers, North America, and maybe the United Kingdom—not Sweden, home of “the good people”—and about instances of blatant discrimination in the country’s history, such as the fact that the world’s first “race biology institute” was founded there and that it was the Swedish and Swiss governments that asked Germany to mark the passports of German Jews in order to keep them out. But it seems as though there was little effort made to connect those ideas to the overarching goals of the conference, namely the titular mission of “Making the Global Local.”
Sweden is certainly not the first place that comes to mind when I think of locations similar to southwestern Pennsylvania, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to connect the dots between Lappalainen’s ideas and issues in the Pittsburgh area. There were several points at which the Pittsburgh link was obvious, but ignored. The talk detailed fields in addition to law enforcement through which racism runs rampant in Sweden and in general, all of which are present here as well. It wouldn’t take much research to learn about the consequences of gentrifying East Liberty and surrounding neighborhoods, an unacknowledged point that represents a gap in Lappalainen’s vague language about the role of structural discrimination in housing and urban renewal.
I do not mean to diminish Lappalainen’s perspective in his field. He demonstrated a keen understanding of structural discrimination in Sweden in relation to other parts of the world, and I absolutely learned a lot on this subject. But his keynote lecture did not “Make the Global Local.” As the members of the Human Rights Cities Alliance and conference organizers move forward, it will be important to consider the balance between the global and the local and whether it is beneficial to compromise one in favor of the other. I look forward to seeing Pittsburgh evolve in its role in the Alliance, and hopefully, seeing the Alliance recognize the unique facets of Pittsburgh.
*content has been edited to reflect correct names of conference sponsors.
Natalie is a rising junior at Hamilton College majoring in Comparative Literature. As the Outreach, Partnerships, & Liaison Intern, she looks forward to helping further TRCF’s goal of affecting social change in her hometown.