Edboard: racism in Pittsburgh

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Recently, the Pittsburgh City Council announced a new piece of legislation that eliminates traffic stops for minor infractions and other secondary violations such as broken tail lights. According to Councilman Ricky Burgess, who sponsored the legislation, the goal of the bill is to reduce racial discrimination and make traffic stops more “equitable and fair.” Pittsburgh Police data show that officers conducted 4,650 stops involving Black motorists, more than white and Hispanic or Latino motorists combined.

The legislation is a step in the right direction for rectifying the racial disparities in Pittsburgh. One report in Pittsburgh found that Black people were three times more likely to be pulled over, 10 times more likely to be frisked, and six times more likely to be arrested after a traffic stop, though former Mayor Bill Peduto’s commission did not opt to call it racial discrimination outright. The bill is a sensible and actionable policy that greatly reduces harm for Black motorists. Furthermore, no one should be pulled over for a minor infraction.

But traffic stops are not the only thing that needs to be changed. Pittsburgh is a systemically racist city, one that is significantly less livable for the Black population. The city’s Black population is declining; thousands left between 2014 and 2018, with one organizer citing high rents and low wages as the reasons. This coincides with the more recent gentrification of neighborhoods such as East Liberty and Lawrenceville in the last decade. The city’s Gender Equity Commission found that Black women are the worst off demographic in Pittsburgh according to most indicators of livability, with Black men not faring much better.

On a purely economic basis, the statistics get even more dire. The unemployment rate of working-age Black men is 12.2 percent, compared to 5.1 percent for working-age white men. They are also more likely to have yearly earnings below poverty level, which only sustains the racially disproportionate access to jobs and internships. As with many urban centers, Pittsburgh has been segregated through its city planning. The city planning reinforced the wealth gap by denying communities of color the opportunity to build home equity. The integration of redlining policy continue to manifest in the inequalities faced by Black residents. All this leaves the Black population of Pittsburgh not only worse off than their white neighbors, but also worse off than the Black population of peer cities.

In a way, this proposed legislation demonstrates both hope for change in Pittsburgh and illustrates the bleak situation its Black community faces. At this point, as sad as it is, even the smallest legal reforms feel like a victory in the context of the systemic economic oppression that persists in the city. With the recent election of Ed Gainey — the city’s first Black mayor — combined with legislation like this, hopefully the city keeps the momentum of change going in the right direction.