End 'Pittsburgh's Shame'

Matt Hawkins_n
C. Matthew Hawkins

Racism has plagued Black Pittsburgh, but so too have divided leadership and missed opportunities

For some reason there has been a recent flurry of discussions on social media about the racial-disparity report written back in 2007 by Ralph Bangs and Larry Davis of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. A Forum article they wrote about it for the Post-Gazette, “Pittsburgh’s Shame,” is making the online rounds.
Mr. Bangs has been documenting racial disparity in Allegheny County for 17 years. Of course, most Black Pittsburghers have been aware of the problem far longer.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has continued blissfully on its way, winning accolades as the “most livable city” in national surveys, making one wonder whether or not Black Pittsburgh is really part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area at all.
It might be tempting to, as many do, blame racism for all of the problems facing Black Pittsburgh, but that would be too simplistic.
To be sure, Pittsburgh is a very cliquish, parochial and conservative town. It has historically been a union town, and it has been a town that has been run by political machines and private philanthropy.
You had to be in the union to have access to jobs, and Blacks were excluded from the unions. You had to be “in the loop” to have access to philanthropic funds, and very few Blacks could penetrate that exclusive inner circle. You had to be part of the party machine in order to leverage political power, and blacks were often crowded out by more affluent and better-connected communities.
It has always been the case that if one could not break into the “right” social networks, then one was plumb out of luck in Pittsburgh. That’s just the way this city works.
But it’s not as though there haven’t been openings over the past 50 years. It’s not as though there haven’t been opportunities that the Black community has not taken advantage of.
There were increased opportunities for neighborhood empowerment during the Community Action days of the 1960s and, later, during the neighborhood-oriented governance of the Richard Caligiuri administration, but those opportunities were not fully exploited by Pittsburgh’s black neighborhoods.
There were opportunities to develop competitive commercial districts when funding was available for community economic development during the 1980s, but the community development corporations in Black neighborhoods were stunningly dysfunctional and weakened by in-fighting.
There were opportunities to get a foothold in the universities during the heady days of the ’70s and the ’80s, but the black intelligentsia allowed itself to get bogged down in petty university politics instead. It did not network or collaborate on important matters such as research, publication and mentorship. It was disengaged from the academic culture that is necessary to survive in an academic institution and, rather than teaching and transmitting an academic culture to young people, it promoted an impotent and futile discourse of grievance and entitlement.
The movement from “at large” representation on city council to council-by-district gave Black Pittsburghers a greater opportunity to have a voice in local politics, but voter turnout in African-American communities is consistently low, and the unwillingness to hold elected officials accountable for more than just token gestures and showmanship ensures that black votes can be taken for granted or ignored altogether by local politicians.
So this is the state of things. Pittsburgh, as a city, may be cliquish, conservative, parochial and insular, thereby marginalizing Black Pittsburgh, but Black Pittsburgh is also cliquish, parochial, conservative and insular, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to bring about change.
Pittsburgh is like a game of musical chairs, and all the seats have been taken. Yet there are accelerating changes in technology, the local economy and local demographics that should provide some margin of opportunity for black Pittsburghers if we are prepared to identify and take advantage of openings — or create them.
In this game of musical chairs, the music is starting up again. The players may be circling fewer chairs in the local economic, cultural and political landscape, yet the untapped resources in this region are rich.
If we continue relying on the same leadership, the same institutions, the same excuses, the same insularity and the same mindset that we have displayed for the past 17 years, however, we will still be reading headlines like “Pittsburgh’s Shame” 17 years from now.
That, my friends, would be the real shame about Black Pittsburgh.
C. Matthew Hawkins was associate director of Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corp. in the 1980s and taught social work at the University of Pittsburgh, history at Carlow University and was a consultant to Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development. He now is a seminarian for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. This article first appeared on the blog Homewood Nation (homewoodnation.com) and was reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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