Born A Man

I need nothing to be a man

Because I was born a man

And I deserve the right to live

Like any other man.

— Big Youth, “My Time”

In case you haven’t heard, Pittsburgh is “one of the most segregated metropolitan communities in the country.”  That statement comes from the Urban Institute’s Margaret Simms, one of the authors of a report on Pittsburgh published last fall.  That study, “Barriers & Bridges,” and a steady stream of others by think tanks, universities and foundations, have all demonstrated what our eyes, ears, out-of-town visitors and life experiences have long told us: Greater Pittsburgh is an extremely racist region.

Some of our white friends will object, but before they do let’s look at the cradle-to-grave numbers in black and white — and the Pittsburgh area basically is black and white, with relatively few people of Asian and Hispanic descent.

We can start with Allegheny County’s black infant mortality rate, which is twice the national average and about the same as Sri Lanka’s.  While growing up in our region, African-American youth are arrested at six times the rate of white youth — it’s “only” two-to-one nationally.  If one successfully avoids jail or prison, then one needs a job.  But the black unemployment rate is consistently double the white rate (you’ll notice a “two-to-one” pattern with many of these statistics).  And even that figure understates the problem for males, since only about half of black men, 18 to 64, are even in the workforce.

The over and under

Okay, so let’s say a black person gets a job.  Care to guess how much this person might earn, compared to a white counterpart?  Yes!  It’s about half as much, with blacks leading 2-to-1 in the $25,000 and under category, and whites leading 2-to-1 in the over $50,000 category.  Not surprisingly, the black poverty rate is a staggering 33 percent, more than double the considerable white rate of 15 percent.

How do people get to work?  Well, nearly a third of blacks rely on public transportation, while only 4 percent of workers “of other races” do so.  A slightly larger number of the “others” — 8 percent — use mass transit for any reason at least once a week.  One may surmise that many of them are taking advantage of services dedicated to getting people to and from the North Side stadiums.

Where do people live?  You shouldn’t be surprised to find that the percentage of whites who own their homes is double the black rate; after all, blacks are denied loans at twice the rate as whites.

We can play this game ad nauseam — looking at education level, educational achievement, health, crime (where blacks are more likely to both be arrested for, and victims of, violent crime), but you get the picture.  The real point is this: what does this picture tell us about our region, and what can be done about it?

Now many people will say that these statistics point to some deficiency in black people — their “culture of poverty,” which doesn’t exactly blame the individual so much as it does the entire class of people from which he or she springs.  Those people need to learn to follow the norms and rules of our society; you have to be tough to teach them independence and self-sufficiency.

This type of thinking leads to a crime-fighting policy that locks up black people for doing the same kinds of things free whites do all the time.  It leads to black people being killed for minor transgressions that white people survive — like a traffic stop or quietly drinking in public.  It allows Bill Clinton, and too many older black people, to continue to pretend that most of those black and brown bodies crowding the prisons are crack dealers who cynically got innocent kids “hopped up” on drugs.  (Hey!  I thought it was the government that did that!)

But all of those arguments are old, stale even.  The problem is racism, pure and simple.  It’s not about civilizing uncultured black people; it’s about addressing centuries of virulent racism, in Pittsburgh and nationally.  It’s about providing opportunity and support to people have been denied opportunity for generations.

Even the polite folks at Heinz Endowments and the Urban Institute, which “does not take positions on issues,” pretty much name the problem as structural racism.  However, their tentatively suggested remedies are weak, relying on good will from the public and leadership from corporations and large institutions.  Perhaps we should rely instead on the force of law, for here is a fact: to the international community, such racism is illegal, a violation of human rights.

Twentieth-century African-American leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, William Patterson and Malcolm X understood this.  Their strategy (at one point or another in their respective careers) was to expose US racism to the world and let our leaders justify themselves before world, whose hearts and minds our leaders so fervently wished to win.  Today, we should expose backwards, paternalistic Pittsburgh — whose political and business leaders have long sought to sell our region as some underappreciated diamond-in-the rough to the nation and world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United States, as a founder of United Nations, also signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is recognized “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”  Everyone is entitled to the rights set forth in the Declaration, regardless not only of such distinctions as “race, colour, sex, language [and] religion,” but also regardless of “property” (or lack thereof) and “birth or other status.”

In other words, people can’t be deprived of the rights inscribed in the Declaration just because they happen to be born black and/or poor.  Article 5, for example, prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  Common examples of this would include police tactics that target only blacks: stop-and-frisk, anti-loitering patrols and the like. Article 9 also prohibits “arbitrary arrest [and] detention.”

Articles 22, 23 and 25 address “social security” and work — basically “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of a person or family.  Some of the things the signers of the Declaration — and therefore, the United States government — believe guarantee this standard of living include housing, medical care, and adequate income during periods of unemployment and old age.

In all, the Declaration is a neat, tidy document that suits our modern age far more than the hallowed U.S. Constitution that gets so much lip-service.  The U.S. signed the Declaration and purports to be the world’s leader in everything, including human (although political leaders much prefer to say “democratic”) rights.  Well, Pittsburgh and its surrounding counties and municipalities are part of the U.S. and therefore subject to all relevant international treaties and agreements.  Just as activists in North Carolina and Georgia are loudly alerting the world to the doings of the homophobic idiots who are in power in those states, we Pittsburghers have to alert the world to the naked inequality that scars our region.

Pittsburgh’s African-American population doesn’t need to be “civilized” in order to enjoy a slice of the pie.  We were born into the human family and, according to the United Nations, that is more than enough. We need opportunity.  Perhaps the word that those fixated on our culture are looking for is “assimilate.” That has been the goal of most African Americans since slavery days, but we can only do so if we are let in.   Black people are plenty civilized and have contributed mightily to this nation, in spite of all the obstacles.  Give us the chance to do more.

(Sources include the aforementioned “Bridges and Barriers,” funded by The Heinz Endowments; “Pittsburgh’s Racial Demographics 2015: Differences and Disparities,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems; and “The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey,which can found at the PittsburghTODAY website.  The various sources defined Greater Pittsburgh variously, from just the city and Allegheny County, to a metro area comprising Allegheny and seven other counties, to the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes 25 counties in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Ohio that surround Pittsburgh.)


— James Collins





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