Power99 Controversy: The Question of "Racism"

In college (and even in grad school, as I recall), we used to have debates about whether you could be "racist" if you happened to be black. Most of my African American friends at the time said no, it doesn't make sense to use that term. The argument goes something like this: the systematic victims of oppression can instigate it themselves, but when they do it it's something less severe than when members of a majority community do it. To describe that species of behavior, my friends tended to use the term "ignorant" (or the more vernacular "ign'ant"), which is also derogatory, but nowhere near as strong.

I used to be sympathetic to that argument, but I'm less so now. Does the language a Power99 DJ used (listen to the MP3 of it here -- it's recently been pulled off the station's website) reflect systematic anger and hostility that "racism" requires? I tend to think so. Does it reflect unequal relations of power? Yes -- a call-center worker in India is not likely to have any legal standing to take action in response. Is it therefore "racism"? Is it a "hate crime"? I tend to think so, but I also think it doesn't matter much whether we use the race/hate idiom or not. It may not be "racism," but it is a racial insult, as it singles out a group behavior. It may not be a "hate" crime, but it is a crime in our current legal system. Libel and slander are crimes (they always have been) even though they are "just speech."

The term the DJ repeatedly used is "rat-eater." (He also used a misogynist term [B---], which is no better.) But "rat-eater" -- where does that come from? Like a lot of racial codes, it's a strange insult, something ugly that seems to have more to do with the DJ's own twisted imagination than with the person -- people, really -- he was trying to insult. It seems to be tied to anti-Chinese and anti-Phillipino insults (Dog-eater, etc.), which stand-up comedians still often throw around, especially when cracking jokes about Chinese restaurants. At the least, the insult is misapplied (similar to when Sikhs are hit with "Bin Laden" insults). But it seems more correct to say in this case that the insult makes no sense whatsoever; it's incoherent.

That too doesn't lessen its offensiveness. Contrary to the commonly held belief that racial insults are based on some kernel of truth, I believe it doesn't matter whether the attribute he's referring to has any basis in anthropological reality. Indeed, the specific content of racial insults (or any insults) doesn't matter; it's the relationship of power between the parties involved, and the the motive and form of the delivery that count. DJ Star meant to insult, and if you listen to the hurt in "Steena's" voice on the MP3, you can tell that it worked. The association of the insultee with a group behavior, however poorly defined or understood by the insulter, does give it its racial edge. Also, he knows that he won't be held accountable for what he's said, and that she isn't in a position to return the insult with one of her own.

I try and keep a thick skin about most things, but this hits home, partly because for two years I listened to that radio station all the time on my way to and from work (that and NPR). It's virtually an institution in Philly; everyone knows Power99. It has the biggest audience, and huge influence over the Philadelphia music scene. People who've grown up there have likely listened to the station for their whole lives.

Well, from now on it's all Terry Gross, all the time for me. And following Anna's lead, I'm sending in a letter of protest to the station, requesting an apology from the DJ.