This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. As allies fighting against social injustice across the country vowed to double down on their efforts and continue to champion the cause of equality and equity, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Editorial Board published an editorial decrying the charge of racism.
The criticisms of the editorial have rightfully come hard and fast. Rather than revisit these criticisms which can be found in The Heinz Endowment’s public response here and in the response by former Post-Gazette staff members as reported in the Pittsburgh City Paper here, I want to take the time today to discuss the necessity of the term “racism,” and why institutions of power continually feel the need to discredit it.
Those in power have always shied away from the term “racism.” In Diane Hope’s excellent essay “Communication and Human Rights: The Symbolic Structures of Racism and Sexism,” she discusses the Kerner Commission’s naming of racism as a basic cause of racial tension in the US as “an ultimate term that incorporates a truly radical analysis of America’s power structure.” The modern parlance has largely adopted this connotation of racism now: the word refers not to general prejudice or discrimination, but rather something that is institutional or structural. The word racism carries with it an implicit critique of the power structures that subjugate people of color.
However those who benefit from those power structures would rather such a term be denied from the discourse of the oppressed. When baiting-and-switching with milder symptomatic terms such as “racial prejudice” or “racial discrimination” failed, we see instead an effort to redefine the definition and connotations of the term racism. We see now in the Post-Gazette’s editorial as we have seen for decades, an attempt to narrow the application of the term, to reduce its rhetorical heft so that it can only be used in the most blatant and obvious expressions of a more pervasive and insidious problem.
One of the fundamental hypocrisies of what the Post-Gazette published is the inversion of the power dynamics institutions benefit from. Their cry of “racist is the new McCarthyism” is itself a pernicious false equivalency. The charge of “racism” simply does not have the delegitimizing force they accuse it of because it is the establishment itself that refuses to legitimize the term. Ironically, it is those who wield the criticism that something is “racist” or an expression of our racist systems who are discredited, situated as they often are either amongst or allied with the oppressed and from the marginalia of our society.
So the accusation of racism is not just a description of prejudice or discrimination as the Post-Gazette and other conservative thinkers would prefer: it is a deep structural critique. The Post-Gazette is accurate when it writes “It has not become a descriptive term for a person who believes in the superiority of one race over another,” because it has always been about so much more than that. By trying to confine the term within those connotations, they attempt to remove one of the most powerful tools in the vocabulary of human rights and social justice.
But why does this matter? Given our specific historical moment in this specific city, I think now of the attack on Jade Martin in Pizza Milano last Friday by a member of Pizza Milano’s management, and the protests that have been organized daily ever since. For the community in Uptown and the Hill District, the violence displayed in the assault is nothing new. For them and for their allies who turned out to express their support for the community and Jade as well as their outrage over both the employee’s actions and the business’s handling of the incident, racism and sexism are clear operatives in the incident.
The terms racism and sexism are what allow the oppressed to articulate the broader sociopolitical context that produced the vicious attack on Jade Martin. These attitudes that coalesced into violence are emblematic of a system that exploits communities of working-class people of color. As the process of gentrification continues throughout Pittsburgh events like these will continue to occur. It is the dehumanization and the denial of personhood at the root of social injustice that allows business to invade a community, then inflict violence upon its people.
In conclusion, the term racism is a necessary and valid tool of criticism. It is one of the ways the oppressed have been able to articulate and address the pervasive and systemic issues that disenfranchise them. The Post-Gazette and others like them want to relegate the word to the most extreme and blatant examples and ignore the roots of the issues it exposes. The charge of racism reveals and alienates those in power from the ways they have insulated themselves against criticism. So keep calling out racists, and keep calling out racism for what it is: a widespread and prevalent problem endemic to our society. It is racism that names the vicious cycle of oppression and the institutions of power that support them. If we seek to combat racism in our nation and in the world, then we have to be able to clearly name and see our enemy wherever it arises.
Stephen Lin is a poet and currently attending the University of Pittsburgh. As a Pittsburgh native and first generation American citizen, he has always been drawn to questions of the role of communication in the cause for social justice. He is a writing intern for Three Rivers Community Foundation.