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'Structural barriers' thwart black men in Pittsburgh, report finds

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, 10:54 p.m.

Black men in Pittsburgh face deep-rooted structural barriers that threaten the broader population's chances at growing a healthy and inclusive economy, a report released Wednesday said.

“Shame on us if we don't recognize this opportunity in this city's history,” said Kevin Acklin, chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto and a panelist at a community forum discussing the report at the Hill House Association's Kaufmann Center in the Hill District. “We have whole neighborhoods in this city that aren't sharing in this new rebirth.”

The Heinz Endowments' African American Men and Boys Task Force commissioned the report by the Washington-based Urban Institute, which analyzed a broad range of data, held focus groups around employment and entrepreneurship and interviewed people with local employers, financial institutions and community-based organizations.

The overarching conclusion: “If Pittsburgh truly wants to become a livable and sustainable metropolis, community leaders and stakeholders must address the structural barriers that continue to reproduce disparity,” the report states.

“We need to be bold, to take risks and not just work around the edges,” said panelist William Generett Jr., president and CEO of Urban Innovation21, a public-private partnership that supports entrepreneurship in the region. “Because working around the edges just hasn't worked.”

The report urged regional leaders to address what it called structural barriers that thwart progress among black men in the region on two fronts — access to wealth and resources to get onto the economic “playing field,” and navigating it once they reach it.

Allegheny County is among the most segregated in the nation, and blacks grapple with the likes of geographic and social isolation, lack of transportation, difficult entry into white-dominated trade unions and wealth disadvantages accumulated over generations, according to the report and panel discussion.

“The reason for the investigation is clear in the numbers,” said Margaret Simms, the report's lead researcher.

Black men in Pittsburgh get denied for home purchase loans at twice the rates of white males here, and they have far lower rates of home ownership — just 36.5 percent of black households own homes, compared to nearly 74 percent of whites.

“They need to be given networking and referral support in the way that white people who grew up here tend to almost take for granted,” said Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments. “This is a town where everything is personal and everybody knows each other, and if you can't get into that knowledge loop and that referral loop, you stand very little chance of getting ahead.”

Between 2007 and 2011, the jobless rate for black men with at least a high school diploma or equivalent was 12.2 percent, compared to 5.1 percent for whites. Blacks make up 11.4 percent of men 18 to 64 in the region but make up just 5.4 percent of the adult male workforce.

“Since many unions were reticent to extend opportunities to African-Americans and were cited for racial discrimination up through the 1960s, many African American children did not have the same resources as their white peers to acquire the skills now needed for the new workforce,” the report states.

Among Urban Institute's recommendations: Support and promote networking and peer learning; “ban the box” requiring job applicants to check if they've been arrested, even if never convicted; and find ways to increase the access to business capital for black entrepreneurs.

Oliphant said the foundation community has long been “very mindful of the two-Pittsburgh problem.”

“There is one Pittsburgh that we talk about, happy and proud that it's getting all of those ‘best of' lists nationally — the best place to live, the best place to start a career, and so on,” he said. “Then there's a very different Pittsburgh that is experienced by people who are disproportionately poor and black.

“We don't think that Pittsburgh can succeed as long as the two-Pittsburgh problem continues,” Oliphant said. “We have to figure out how to make it better.”

Since 2007, The Heinz Endowments have doled out more than $6 million in grants tied to improving the economic futures of black men in the region. The funding allocations range from $10,000 and $20,000 grants to the Urban Youth Action program to run green roofing training, to $575,000 for Gateway Medical Society's “Journey to Medicine” mentoring program that pairs black doctors with students interested in medical careers.

“It has taught us a lot about where we ought to make investments and where Pittsburgh ought to make investments,” said Oliphant, “but we're still a long way from turning this problem around.”

“What we don't see in Pittsburgh is a lot of champions for this issue in the white community,” Oliphant added. “Until the white community in Pittsburgh is willing to take this issue on, it will always be difficult.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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