To Live and Die in Pittsburgh
How the death of Antwon Rose symbolizes larger issues with Pittsburgh’s racial legacy
Another day, another black youth shot by police. It’s a story we’ve unfortunately become all-too-familiar with.
When first I heard about the story of Antwon Rose, a Black teen from the Greater Pittsburgh area, being shot by Michael Rosfeld, a white police officer, I got that uncomfortable, yet familiar, feeling of being disappointed but not at all surprised.
“Of course this would happen in the Pittsburgh area” I thought.
For six years (consecutive undergrad and grad school stints) I went to college two hours away from Pittsburgh at Edinboro University of PA. Many of my good friends from college are from the Pittsburgh area, yet, for nearly a decade, I’ve held a strong belief that the Pittsburgh area is distinctly racist.
Notice that I said “distinctly racist” to make it clear that I’m not at all implying that racism doesn’t plague other parts of Pennsylvania (trust me, I’m from Philly), or this country as a whole, but there’s something to be said about the racial legacy of the Pittsburgh area.
To me, the Pittsburgh area has a certain unapologetic, deep-rooted racism, that goes beyond just indifference on black life, but seems to reflect an underlying white discomfort and a disdain for the Black people who live there.
This isn’t to say that all white Pittsburghers are anti-Black, but their lives have more than likely been influenced by Pittsburgh’s racial legacy. Whether it’s where they grew up, the schools they went to, the jobs their parents had/have, the political beliefs of family members— race plays a role.
Pittsburgh’s racialized legacy stands out to me in many ways, whether it’s reading the often coded, yet racially antagonistic comments on an online news article, seeing the segregation in housing, or even seeing the anti-Black (yet, outdated) dress codes for certain bars and clubs.
One can look at how difficult it is for many Black college graduates, some them having advanced degrees, to find substantial, fulfilling employment in their home city.
A 2015 study on racial disparities, from the University of Pittsburgh, even indicated that average median income of white households in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area was twice as much as Blacks.
None of this happened by accident nor by mere coincidence; like many cities, it was designed to be this way.
The systemic racism of a city like Pittsburgh is designed in a way which destroys Black lives not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally.
I’ve often wondered how much of the racial legacy of the area has to do with it’s history. As most people know, in the early to mid 20th century, Pittsburgh was arguably the prime location of the steel industry.
According to a 2001 story from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, from 1910 to 1930, the Black population of Pittsburgh more than doubled — growing from 25,623 to 54,983. During this same period, the number of Black American iron and steel workers in Pittsburgh had an increase by more than 600 percent.
Now knowing what I know about the United States, especially in the early 20th century, I’m willing to bet that white Pittsburgh residents weren’t exactly thrilled by the idea of a bunch of Black folks from places like Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and the Carolina's, moving North to compete with them for jobs and resources.
It also didn’t help that Black people in the Pittsburgh area were commonly used as strikebreakers who would work when white labor unions refused to do so.
One could look at how Pittsburgh became racially segregated through intentionally exclusionary zoning ordinances and redlining. In 1937, realtors created the Residential Security Map of Pittsburgh for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation indicating which areas were worth investing in based on them being “Definitely declining” or “hazardous”.
The neighborhoods deemed “declining” and “hazardous” were — you guessed it — disproportionately black, immigrant or poor communities. The stigmas and policies developed to exclude these areas from loans and business opportunities contributed to the development of ghettos and determined were police patrolled more often and were taught to be more cautious of.
Antwon Rose came from Rankin, PA, a Greater Pittsburgh borough, which, as far back as 1937, was deemed a “Hazardous” area (D13 on the map). This was largely due to it’s “infiltration” (their language, not mine) of Black migrants and a declining white population.
Rose was born into a world which wasn’t invested in his success nor his safety to begin with. To understand the circumstances in which he died, and how a newly-sworn in police officer would find it to be acceptable to shoot him in the back 3 times, one must question the systems in place which make it seem acceptable or logical to do such a thing.
In the 2015 book, Nobody, scholar Marc Lamont Hill defines what it means to be “nobody” in America. “To be Nobody is to be vulnerable… To be Nobody is to be rendered disposable”
The lives of people like Antwon Rose are rendered disposable by subtle, everyday forms of state violence in schooling, housing, and employment — long before a physical act of state violence even takes place.
And what makes it even worse is that this type of state violence effects people all over the country, from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to Flint and Ferguson.
When I really think about it, maybe the racial legacy of Pittsburgh isn’t that different from the rest of America after all.