The Unbearable Whiteness of Being… White

Kudos to Tony Norman for his recent harangue in the Portfolio column of the Post-Gazette. Norman, uncharacteristically bitter and sardonic, calls out Pittsburgh as the “whitest city in America” (for its size)– “one of the least diverse and least inclusive metro areas in America.” He effectively makes the case that Pittsburgh is an urban “Mayberry” in its parochial tolerance and nurturing of racism. Of course the case is not hard to make given the long history of educational, job, and housing discrimination enforced in the area and the persistent patterns of segregation. But it was good to see it prominently featured in the Post-Gazette.

Norman lays the blame for Pittsburgh’s cancerous racism at the door step of the city’s “Democratic Party establishment.” He delivers impressively virulent invective in the party’s direction: “.. a motley crew of good-government types, party hacks, old school progressives, neighborhood bullies, private sector rejects, ossified bureaucrats, entitled dynasties, clueless aristocrats, and smug dead-enders.”

As eloquently pointed as this list is, it calls out for some correction. “Old school progressives”– that is, New Deal Democrats– are extinct. Since the retirement of Tom Flaherty from active politics and the gerrymandering of Jim Ferlo’s Senatorial district and his subsequent retirement, there are no such politicians… none… zilch.

What remains are corporate liberals, liberals who are convinced that all social problems, including racism and poverty, can be dissolved with private sector solutions. They fundamentally believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, that generating private sector economic growth in Pittsburgh will improve everyone’s life chances. It is this thinking that animates the promiscuous use of tax abatement, subsidies, privatization, and the ubiquitous talk of public-private partnerships (public resources, private gain)– none of which have even a minute chance of eliminating racism or its consequences.

But all the blame can’t be laid at the Democratic Party doorstep. The unique and powerful influence of foundations– the wealth accumulated by the region’s robber barons– have singularly neglected support for African-Americans and African-American causes. The recent debacle of the August Wilson Center is an example of under funding and managing-to-fail that would never be possible with the more “white” cultural institutions. And any hint of African-American independent leadership has been erased by directing the August Wilson Center to the patronizing guidance of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a reliable safeguard of conservative cultural values.

And of course since the decline of steel and related industries, there are virtually no good-paying jobs for African-Americans. Apart from low paying jobs in the service sector and a few union-scale jobs in government, there are few economic categories welcoming Black people. The “Meds and Eds” economy boasted by all politicians since the exit of the steel industry has largely relegated African-Americans to the bottom rungs. Neither Pittsburgh’s elites nor Tony Norman’s media colleagues seem overly concerned about this disparity.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the area’s crude, visible racism like the omnipresence of construction sites and the sparseness of African-American and women construction workers on those sites. In warm weather, you can play a juvenile game of counting Blacks and women workers on sites as you travel through Googleville (East Liberty), Garfield, or Oakland. The results are a civic embarrassment only underscoring Tony Norman’s frustration. Apparently women and Blacks can negotiate a 25 ton articulated bus around Mayor Peduto’s bike lanes, but they are not qualified to work as laborers or operate construction equipment. Developer’s pretend to employ minorities, building trade unions pretend to welcome them, and local government pretends to guarantee minority inclusion.

Thanks, Tony Norman, for pulling the media curtain back.

Greg Godels

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3 thoughts on “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being… White

  1. There were two parts of Tony’s editorial I took exception to. First the idea that Pittsburgh is “too white”. 26% of the city’s population identifies as African American, twice the national proportion and twice the county’s as a whole. What is the magic number that is “black enough”?
    Second, Tony railed against high cost housing being built in town. I am a lifelong city resident, and I think this is great. We need an influx of affluent and middle class residents to help pay for the city’s services. I remember folks bemoaning “white flight” (which was also wealth flight) back in the sixties and seventies; now Tony, from his perch out in Sewickley, is complaining about the opposite. There is plenty of housing stock in the city; we’ve lost 55% of our population since 1950. It would be great to build that number back up a bit.

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    1. Thanks again for your comment. I can’t speak for Tony, but I think his comments may reflect a study published in March called “Behind the Times: The limited Role of Minorities in the Greater Pittsburgh Work Force.” The study, funded by the Heinz Foundation”, demonstrates that Blacks in the region are essential locked into the lower occupation tiers, earning less, and otherwise disadvantaged when compared to other cities.To me, this disparity is far more important than arguing over the how many whites or African-Americans live here. De-industrialization stripped African-Americans of any semblance of a vital middle class unlike cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, or Atlanta) and stripped away most good paying jobs. Local politicians (the target of Norman’s rant) offer no answers to this disaster. Instead they throw literally tens of millions at the feet of developers through tax abatement, loans, public subsidies, etc. for hare-brained projects (think Murphy’s “revitalization” of downtown, think the tunnel, the stadiums, the proposed Oakland/downtown link, on and on…)

      Renaissance is good if it’s inclusive. The untold history of the previous Renaissance projects have not been inclusive; they have not respected neighborhoods, the poor, the working stiff, or minorities. Things haven’t changed today.

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