Chelsa Wagner: It’s time to deal with Pittsburgh’s ‘deep, ugly, insidious’ racial disparities

By June 27, 2018 June 30th, 2018 29 Comments

“It is far more important that we all take ownership of our racial divide more than we do the superficial designations that land us on the best-of lists.”

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner speaks at a rally honoring Antwon Rose Tuesday morning.

By Chelsa Wagner/
Allegheny County Controller
Special to the Pittsburgh Current

Nothing I say can express the deep sadness I feel for Antwon Rose, his family and the many community members who will endure unspeakable pain and grief for the rest of their lives.  

However, I know that honoring this young man’s life requires more than bringing to justice the officer who heinously shot an unarmed, fleeing boy three times in back.

We must all confront the deep and ugly disparities of race and privilege in this region; disparities that run deeper and are more insidious than nearly anywhere else in our country.  We must engage in a conversation that is and has always been woefully lacking in Pittsburgh, and commit meaningfully to both urgent and sustained action.  

That begins, I believe, by admitting unequivocally that we live what is best referred to as a “tale of two cities.”  The reality of daily life for those who are White (like me) is drastically different from the reality of daily life for people of color in this region.  The reality of what culminated in the end of a beautiful young black boy’s life on June 19, exists in a place seemingly light years away, rather than the few miles separating us all within our compact geography.  For Black people in Pittsburgh, the designation of “Most Livable City” has never included them.

Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk

Until we acknowledge this vast divide, and act upon it, I don’t believe justice will ever be served in Antwon’s name.  It is far more important that we all take ownership of our racial divide more than we do the superficial designations that land us on the “best of” lists.  Of course this tragedy is part of a much larger system of institutionalized racism in America. However, Pittsburgh (especially White Pittsburgh) must understand that we are not just any other city or ZIP code in America.  Candidly and plainly, things are far worse here, and made worse yet by all the hypocrisy and propaganda that works relentlessly to silence the voices of our marginalized communities. And while of course there are many white residents within our region who struggle, most notably those who are poor, those struggles should never prevent us as a community from recognizing the disparate struggles and experiences for people of color

I believe many people who, like me, grew up white in Pittsburgh are aware to some degree of the dichotomy.  However, I do not believe there is real awareness of the daily traumatization that becomes death by a thousand cuts.  If there was, I don’t believe so many white residents would ask why the protesters do not move to a location that is less “inconvenient,” just as so many wouldn’t have responded with righteous indignation to the Pittsburgh Steelers sitting out the national anthem last season.  

Let me also candidly admit that I, too, didn’t fully grasp the depth and breadth of racial bias in this city until I became the wife of a black male who grew up here, and the mother of two biracial young boys, both of whom proudly identify as Black.  That is not to say I was unaware, but there is a distinct difference.

I also see how quickly some dismiss characterizations of racism in Pittsburgh by suggesting that Pittsburgh is no different than any other city or region. The depth and breadth of the racial divides in Pittsburgh are indeed far worse than in comparable cities, a truth that is both supported by statistics and poignantly demonstrated by the lived experiences of far too many people of color in our region. A recent study showed that only one-half-of-one percent of residents of the Pittsburgh metro area live in a highly racially or ethnically diverse neighborhood, the lowest among more than 50 metro areas surveyed.  Time and time again, I hear from people of color who have left Pittsburgh believing it is the most racist place they have lived, and from many others who remain, desperate to leave the region at the first opportunity to do so.

As some have questioned why Antwon ran from the police, I think of the many times my friends and I ran from police when we were gathering at a park after hours in Beechview.  I think of the outcomes that were different for my white friends and family, who as teens were stopped by police and warned to get home safely, however, when my husband and his friends were in a similar situation, they were detained or taken to the station on the North Side. I also cannot help thinking of the religious teachings that were reinforced to me and my classmates in our (mostly White) Catholic schools, instructing us to walk a mile in another’s shoes.  

I think also of experiences of new Pittsburghers, recruited to work in the tech economy. One friend in particular is the mother of a black college-aged son who is experiencing a region where he is “perceived to be poor and uneducated” because of the color of his skin, something he had never experienced in other places they lived. I think of another friend, a Black female about my age, who was pulled over just a few weeks ago while driving in a predominately white Pittsburgh neighborhood; the officer admitted there was no probable cause to do so (reading between the lines that she was simply “driving while black” in Pittsburgh, a phrase I realized many of my White friends had never heard). I think of the subtle, though inconvenient, adjustments that I and my husband make to make life easier. For example, I’m usually the one to call a new service company if we need something done at our house to avoid the sort of racial profiling that has otherwise produced delays and no-shows.  I think of my husband pulling aside a young Black male just entering his teenage years to warn him about cutting through yards in our neighborhood, for fear that he could be mistaken for something more sinister than a young boy simply having fun with his friends.

These daily anecdotal occurrences do not stand in isolation, but are born out in statistic after statistic demonstrating the disparities in our region.  We have infant mortality rates within our Black community that are worse than those in “developing” countries, wage inequality and poverty figures that dwarf our counterparts, and are situated within a geographic area identified as having among the highest concentration of hate groups. These are just a few unfortunate statistics. There are certainly many more.   

The fact is, though I closely experience some things now through my family, I will never experience first-person or know how it feels day in and day out to be black in Pittsburgh.  Yet if nothing else, I am now well aware of how terribly painful it is. While I do not have the answers, nor do I purport to be any sort of expert on any of these matters, I believe passionately that we must all — especially those of us who have lived with the privilege of being White in this region — bear a responsibility to help bring these disparities out from the shadows.  I would hope that every religious leader in this region speaks to his or her congregation about Antwon, most especially in the white enclaves of our region. Our schools, especially those in white communities, must not ignore what occurred when classes resume in two months.

Our corporate community must evolve from the comfortable taglines of “diversity and inclusion” to help lead meaningfully.  Policy makers like myself must act on the many measures that will prevent such atrocities (beginning with the enactment of laws for public safety professionals like those that exist in public education to prevent individuals with negative work history in one jurisdiction from simply moving to another).  We all must contribute and recognize that even the smallest gesture, such as initiating a discussion with our neighbor, makes a difference.

I do believe that there is tremendous potential for positive change by openly confronting these ugly truths.  I think of how the #MeToo movement began conversations that were never before brought to the surface, and in particular of the many tremendous male allies who otherwise had no idea of the breadth and depth of those injustices.  I think of a good friend here in Pittsburgh who had been married to her husband for nearly three decades and raised four children, and until conversations were sparked by #MeToo, her husband had no idea of the constant drip of challenges she had faced in the workplace.  Our ability to acknowledge these injustices is tremendously powerful.

It is often said that the best characteristic of Pittsburgh has always been its people, and it is time we live up to that reputation no matter how uncomfortable it is for some of us. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther  King Jr., “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”

It is up to us all to honor Antwon Rose’s life and legacy by ensuring Pittsburgh is a city that is truly livable for everyone and a place we all can be proud to call home.   


  • Sheila May-Stein says:

    A great start to a discussion among white city leaders, from an elected official I have begun to increasingly look to as a voice to listen to. Thank you, Chelsa Wagner.

  • Ann Betters says:

    Thank you for speaking out. White people don’t believe even the two separate surveys completed by the University of Pittsburgh back in the 90’s that each rated Pittsburgh as being 100th out of 100, rock bottom, in how black/brown people fared here in such things as employment opportunities, housing and Public educaton. Every day I can see racism on wheels as in the mornings mostly Whites clog the highways into Pittsburgh and note the reverse at quitting time.

    • Ken says:

      Black people make up 13% of the population, so naturally you’re doing to see more white people driving into the city than black people. Your analysis is based on the assumption that there are hoards of black men and women being turned away from employment opportunities. If there is evidence of situations where qualified black candidates are being discriminated against then something has to be done about those situations. Otherwise, there is no issue.

  • Luann Gordon says:

    Oh my God! If you had not said it all in just minutes what needed to be said and heard by all people…. I was in raised in PGH suburbs. Went to college at an HBCU in a predominantly black district (HU, Washington ,DC). Brought my husband back here because of aging parents. I regret it but my husband from MD thinks this is where we are supposed to be. After 30+ yrs and 2 children I continue to wonder… Such a love/hate relationship with what could be the place for ALL people.

  • James Ketterman says:

    Well said. Beautiful, I thought I was the only one to see it! Thank you!

  • Sean Russell says:

    Well said Chelsa, great article I myself growing up on the north side and having many African american friends saw first hand things that I could get away as opposed to my friends. We have to work together to make Pittsburgh a better place for all regardless of skin color.

  • Mark Gray says:

    I moved to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn, New York, a long, long time ago. It was 1966 and I felt that Pittsburgh was far more racist than the environment I had experience in New York. (I am white.) I have no statistics to back up my feeling. It was only a feeling. I had hoped that half a century later things were much improved. But it seems that’s not the case. Maybe it’s the political climate. When Barak Obama was elected president, I thought we had come so far. Now it seems that we have taken a giant step backward.

  • Barbara says:

    I would stand and voice right along with you.❤️

  • Al says:

    Such a poignant response to the “Tale of two cities “. I worry for my child and grandchildren who live there. My son told me of the countless incidents he has gone through while living in Mt Oliver. I never knew Pittsburgh was so divided. ..

  • Queenetta Johnson says:

    Thanks for your service” I think it’s. Going to be alot of positive. Changes in our community”because enough is enough when it’s going to Stop and End”

  • Queenetta Johnson says:

    Thank you for your Service I think it’s going to be alot of positive changes in every body community” majority because enough is enough when it’s going to Stop and End”

  • Tiffany Allen says:

    So much truth here in this article. Thank you so much for writing it and putting it there for discussion. Hopefully we can turn this discussion into positive actions and improvements to change things in Pittsburgh! My family and I are ready to help in whatever way we can.

  • Bridget Miller says:

    Well said Chelsea and so important. I am always amazed how “White” Pittsburgh is. It is shockingly white. I worked with someone from Mt. Lebenon who was afraid to drive to Home Depot on Highland Ave out of fear for her safety.
    That is a BIG statement.

    • Ken says:

      It’s a BIG statement on the paranoia of your friend. Statistically speaking, she should be much more afraid of other blacks than the cops. The Antwon Rose situation involved two black men shooting at each other before the cops ever got involved. Should I fear driving to Home Depot because there may be black men there or does that sound completely ridiculous?

  • Zita Ann Berry says:

    Chelsea, Thank you! I am an Army Brat and have traveled the world. I was born here but never lived here. In 1992 I decided to move to Pittsburgh. I too found Pittsburgh to be one of the most racist cities that I’ve ever lived. Jobs, places to live ect. Many look at my name and CV and had no idea that I was Black or not caucasian. The faces and stuttering was funny and very sad.
    I applaud you and Thanks from a different view. A Heart Felt View! You and your Family are in my prayers. God Bless.Zita Ann Berry

  • Linda Griffin says:

    Chelsea all I can say right now is thank you for the courage to speak up on the racism that so many in the comfortable places of our region wish to ignore.

  • Cynthia Nightingale says:

    If you don’t believe Pittsburgh is one of the most racist cities in America, simply drop past WPXI’s comment section on Facebook. There you will find THE LOWEST OF THE LOW spreading hatred in our beloved city. I hope congress starts to bring awareness. Enough is enough!

    • Ken says:

      What percentage of the Pittsburgh population do you feel is represented by the WPXI comment section? Racism thrives online because people typically don’t have to own up to what they say. That’s like saying “If you think Pittsburgh doesn’t have an obesity problem then sit in a Dunkin Donuts.” That’s not a Pittsburgh thing. I’ve lived here for quite some time and I don’t know a single racist. The company I work for doesn’t discriminate at all.

  • Michel Bullard says:

    I completely agree. I am a life long Pittsburgh er and your article resonated with me. We need to work together for change instead of ignoring or deflecting the painful reality that minorities face everyday. My hope is that we can realize needed change by coming together. Thank you for recognizing it and speaking to the issues so eloquently.

  • Sue Morris says:

    Thank you for speaking these truths. For all our civic pride, historically has always has been a de facto racially segregated city. For too many of this area’s white residents, the fact that they themselves literally do not see discrimination happening is interpreted as meaning it does not exist, or that “it’s not so bad.” Blinders may have been donned as a result of isolated ignorance initially, but continue to be worn now in deliberate, willful ignorance. We must all acknowledge and be willing to work together to make this a just, livable city for all, in the ways that you described, in order to truly live up to this area’s proud titles.

  • Pam Focke Start says:

    Beautifully written, a very thoughtful piece on the truth that our black brothers and sisters face on a daily basis. Thank you Chelsea!

  • Pittsburgh Mike says:

    Back when I worked in the North Hills, all of perhaps 5 years ago, I noticed that if a car was pulled over, the driver was, three out of four times, African American. Coincidence, perhaps, but I doubt it: the cars didn’t appear to be in worse shape than a typical car on McKnight Rd, and certainly the vast majority of the obviously terrible drivers on McKnight were white.

  • Rosaleen says:

    I moved from New York to Pittsburgh and unfortunately the racism was one is the first things I was confronted with It is blatant and it is ugly. Yes we need to have the conversations in a calm and rational manner. I think we can learn a lot from each other and find peace and equality together.

  • Adam Newman says:

    My new favorite Pittsburgh public servant.

    • Bobby Smoth says:

      What a joke!
      Gosh and I thought all along people were free to come and go as they please. If you don’t like it here then leave! No one is making you stay here! Now if you choose to not work, drink alcohol, smoke weed, and collect welfare your entire life then sure you can’t get out! Get a job, pay taxes, respect authority “police officers” and raise your children correctly then they will have a great life. Notice raise your children correctly “that mean teach them not no rob individials at gun point” Antwon rose “be involved in drive by shootings” Antwon rose “have 2 stolen guns under your seat in a gitney with the clip to one of them in your pocket as you run from the police” Antwon rose…….
      I’m pretty sure if you teach your children those things they’d be much much more safe!

      • Ken says:

        Bobby is correct. If Antwon was shot by another black man (and he nearly was), nobody here would be able to “say his name” because you wouldn’t know it. Why? Because “Black Lives Matter” only when they’re taken by white men because it supports a narrative. While I agree there was much more to Antwon than “the kid who was involved in a drive-by”, the fact that he wrote a poem doesn’t mean he was a great kid who came from a great family. Parenting isn’t easy, but there’s a total lack of accountability here.

  • T.B smith says:

    Chelsea, thank you for telling the truth, the whole truth. Help us God! Even on our jobs, as blacks we are often pass over, or,held back for promotions. This thing is deep, it covers all areas in our life. It does not matter what color we are, hearts need to change.
    If we are going to live in peace on this earth.

  • Chelsa’s issues with Detroit’s Finest not withstanding, she pretty much hit the nail on the head. White folks thinking that Pittsburgh is the bee’s knees should stand on the corner of Homewood and Frankstown and ask any 10 random people on the streets if they think Pittsburgh is really all that. Don’t be mistaken, I love Pittsburgh but being black here is NOT easy. Pittsburgh would fit in the Pacific Northwest in terms of the lack of Blackness.

  • Ken says:

    I know plenty of black men and women who are doing quite while in Pittsburgh. If you really want the lower-class community (which isn’t exclusively black, by the way) to thrive then perhaps you should focus on providing resources instead of complaining so that you can take advantage of Social Justice trends. Standing on a street corner holding a sign or showing up to rallies isn’t exactly something you can put on your resume or you LinkedIn profile. If you live in or around Pittsburgh and you want better opportunities then perhaps it’s a good time to realize that the device you hold in the palm of your hands is good for more than Retweeting Shaun King. You have the entire world at your fingertips.

    I’m white and I started from behind myself. I used to complain about how people less capable than me were doing better than me. Then I stopped complaining and I got into college. I worked hard then. I graduated. I worked hard again and I’ve come very far in a short amount of time. The steps I took are available to ANYONE and ANYONE who takes them will end up close to where I am or even further. Stop trying to guilt companies into hiring you and instead show them why you’re the best option. This “victim” crap is getting tired and it’s not admirable. Grow up and take some accountability.

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