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Black Pittsburgh: Past and Future

Posted by C. Matthew Hawkins on August 11, 2014 at 3:05 PM

For some reason there has been a recent flurry of discussions on social media about the racial disparity report that was written by Ralph Bangs and Larry Davis of the School of Social Work back in 2007, as an op-ed written by the two for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Pittsburgh's shame," makes the rounds. Bangs has been documenting racial disparity in Allegheny County for the past 17 years. Most Black Pittsburghers have been aware of this problem far longer than Bangs has documented it. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has continued blissfully on its way, winning accolades as the "most livable city" on 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 "part of 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 under the 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 CDCs 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 turn-out 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 either 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 already 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 are circling around even fewer chairs in the local economic, cultural and political landscape. Yet the untapped resources in this region are rich. But if we continue relying on the same leadership, the same institutions, the same excuses, the same insularity and the same mindset that we have relied on for the past 17 years then we will be reading headlines like this one 17 years from now.

That, my friends, will be the real "shame" about black Pittsburgh.



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