The Pittsburgh Foundation


Martin Luther King Jr., during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963.

The following is a public response to an editorial published Jan. 15 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It is co-signed by The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments:

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has done our community and the cause of justice a grave disservice with its lead editorial, “Reason as Racism,” published of all days on Martin Luther King Day, when we as a nation commemorate the ongoing fight to end racism in our country.

Repeated verbatim from an opinion piece printed Saturday in its sister publication the Toledo Blade, the editorial is a silly mix of deflection and distortion that provides cover for racist rhetoric while masquerading as a defense of decency. It is unworthy of a proud paper and an embarrassment to Pittsburgh.

You would think an editorial loftily decrying “name calling” in public life would criticize the president for his reported recent description of Haiti and some African nations as “s-hole countries.” Sadly, however, the piece aims its venom at those who rightly described the president’s words as racist.

It is a sorry pastiche of whitewashing drivel. It builds a straw-man argument that the term “racist” is too often used to silence opponents, completely ignoring this president’s well-established pattern of repeatedly invoking race to divide the country and to attack his enemies. A president who defends Nazis and white supremacists has described himself, as did his initial failure to deny the language from his immigration meeting and the reported glee his advisors took in “tough language” they thought would play to the base. If you don’t want to be called a racist, don’t be racist.

Of course the editorial dismisses racism as an overused word that should be “confined” to mass murderers like Dylann Roof and the conveniently distant bigots of the past like Bull Connor. But the very struggle at the heart of Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights was the insidious way racism permeates everyday life and language. Damning countries where the people are primarily brown or black while wishing for more immigrants from a predominantly white country “like Norway” is the very definition of a racist lens, and the only way racism will ever end is for those with power to call it what it is.

Instead, the Post-Gazette editorial hides behind the idea that all presidents speak crassly in private, and that a different word would have offended less, as though the word was the issue and not who it was used to describe. Never mind that this president, more than any in modern memory, uses private vulgarity as public pronouncement. Never mind that how the American president characterizes other countries, races, ethnicities, religions and peoples sets the tone for how others in the world oversee us. Never mind that belittling whole swaths of the planet’s population is unworthy of a great nation, let alone a compassionate people.

“So what?” asks the Post-Gazette twice, as if to underscore its dismissal, calling the whole controversy a distraction from the “real” issue of immigration. That is the most offensive flaw in its argument. Here’s what it forgets: Perhaps the central point of contention in this nation’s immigration debate is the role of race and racism in deciding who is welcome here. No serious person disagrees we should have more secure borders. But who gets to come inside those borders, and how that’s decided, and how to ensure it is done fairly and without bias, is the fundamental question.

It matters profoundly whether the Trump Administration’s stance on who belongs in America is rooted in any kind of racial view of who is or gets to be an American. In dismissing this controversy as irrelevant the Post-Gazette only proves itself ignorant of or indifferent to what’s really being debated in Washington, and to the ongoing fight for justice that today’s holiday commemorates.

Pittsburgh, like many communities around the country, still struggles with becoming the sort of fair and inclusive community where all feel welcome and have the real opportunity to thrive. We remain committed to that goal and believe we can get there.

But it will require honesty from all of us, including our newspaper of record. The president’s words were simply and frankly racist. To excuse racism in the name of politics, to attempt to dress it up in fancy clothes and camouflage, is to condone it.

Does the Post-Gazette really want to be on that side of history? We urge it to rethink its position and to stand squarely with those working toward a more just future for all the people who call our community home.

Grant Oliphant
The Heinz Endowments

Maxwell King
President & CEO
The Pittsburgh Foundation