“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.”
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.
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.