City council urged to confront inequities, institutions hindering Pittsburgh’s black residents |

City council urged to confront inequities, institutions hindering Pittsburgh’s black residents

Natasha Lindstrom
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Community activist Khalid Raheem shakes hands with Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess and discusses next steps toward improving the lives of blacks in the region following a hearing at the City-County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019.
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Darlene Harris speaks about her commitment to address persisting racial inequities through more city-driven efforts that hold institutions accountable and go beyond research reports during a public hearing at the City-County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019.
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Community activist Khalid Raheem asks Pittsburgh City Council members for various types of reparations, including policy changes, cash investments and other forms of assistance, to help improve the lives of black residents and reduce inequities during a public hearing at the City-County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019.

Pittsburgh’s elected leaders should own up to historical barriers as well as persisting structural and institution-driven ones that contribute to the city’s drastic racial inequities and poverty-based segregation between whites and blacks, several residents told city council on Wednesday.

“We demand reparations,” said Khalil Raheem, founder of the New Afrikan Independence Party and organizer of committee for a Civilian Police Review Board of Allegheny County.

Raheem spoke at a public hearing in council chambers on behalf of a newly formed grassroots group called the Peoples Campaign for Reparations and Black Self-Determination. He presented a petition requesting that reparations be made to black Pittsburghers “because of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and the continued systemic and structural of white supremacy and economic and justice.”

“We built two multimillion-dollar stadiums over the last several years or so, and we still have abject poverty all throughout the city of Pittsburgh,” Raheem told council members as the first speaker during a roughly half-hour public comment period. “We have neighborhoods where if you live on one block you’re doing well, if you live on another block it looks like a whole different neighborhood whatsoever. So we have a lot of things that we need to look at, and we need to re-examine when it comes to race relations and economic disparity and income disparity in the city of Pittsburgh.”

Several residents expressed support for Raheem’s petition during the hearing at the City-County Building on Grant Street, Downtown.

They called on city council to issue a formal apology, pledge to reduce ongoing barriers and make reparations — which could take a variety of forms, including not only cash payments but also policy changes, school tuition vouchers, health care programs, debt relief, land, tax breaks and housing vouchers.

“It does not have to be one big grand check,” said Justin Laing, 49, of the city’s Brookline neighborhood.

The call for reparation dates to oppression during slavery and prior to the Civil Right Act of 1964 — including Jim Crow laws, voter suppression and “convict leasing,” in which poor black prisoners were forced to work in mills and factories to pay off fines for violations such as loitering, Raheem said.

But it also must account for unfair policies and treatment by government, corporations and law enforcement agencies that have spanned more recent decades and continue to present disproportionate obstacles to blacks in 2019, Raheem said. Such obstacles include the impact of mass incarceration and the so-called “War on Drugs,” disproportionate denial of home ownership and exclusion from certain jobs and industries, he said.

“The only way this disparity can be dealt with is by admitting it,” Laing said.

Data points to dismal economic disparity

Western Pennsylvania as a region is among the most segregated in the nation in terms of where blacks and whites live, census data show.

And blacks here fare far worse than whites on a slew of quality-of-life metrics, from employment to home ownership to educational attainment, studies funded by The Heinz Endowments show. About a third of blacks in the Pittsburgh metro area — including the surrounding suburbs — live in poverty, compared with 15 percent of whites, census data show.

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.

Laing said that reparations could target certain areas impacted negatively by specific events. The city’s historically black Hill District continues to struggle to rebound to the leveling of a large swatch of the neighborhood to make room for the former Civic Arena. Now, rents are poised to climb and potentially displace more residents in coming years as the Pittsburgh Penguins plan high-end condos and development on the land.

“We can still see the deep effects … the segregation that our neighborhood and schools experience to this day,” said Jay Walker, 29, a Shadyside resident and chair of the local Green Party. “Any potential reparations need to take into account the cumulative historical trauma and theft, much of which was actively enforced by our own government.”

Nearly 90 percent of low-income students in Pittsburgh’s public system attend “intensely segregated” schools, up from 77 percent in 1999, found a 2015 report by The Civil Rights Project at University of California, Los Angeles.

Schools with predominantly black students tend to have worse resources, lower rates of achievement, graduation and post-secondary education, and higher rates of teacher turnover, absenteeism and discipline problems than schools with more diverse populations of race and income levels.

Majority oppose reparations, but support growing

A Gallup poll found earlier this year that 29 percent of Americans support monetary reparations be paid to the descendants of slaves, up from 14 percent who supported the idea in 2002.

Raheem suggested policymakers and citizens recall the methods and legislative packages that led to a formal apology and cash reparations payments to the families of Japanese Americans confined to internment camps during World War II.

Raheem’s group also seeks reparations in the form of proportional representation in political offices and the release of political prisoners, such as former Black Panther members who’ve been behind bars for decades.

He hopes to see city leaders form a commission to design a package of legislation that gets things moving.

He said that ultimately, it’s going take the collaboration among local, state and federal governments as well as private and nonprofit leaders to bring about results.

“We’re starting with the local municipality that at this point has the largest percentage of black people as residents, and that’s the city,” Raheem said. “We’re going to be moving from the city to the county, and we’re going to take our argument to the state.”

Reparations-related legislation is being floated by Democrats in the Pennsylvania General Assembly as well as in Congress.

Council members Darlene Harris, Deb Goss and Ricky Burgess spoke briefly in support of advancing such those of efforts — without getting very specific about what forms those steps might take.

“We should all work together and not just talk about it, actually do it,” Harris said.

Burgess said he supports larger investments in place-based efforts to revitalize the city’s poorest neighborhoods a few blocks at a time.

“This is not the end of this conversation,” Burgess said. “I have been very moved by what you said.

“I don’t know if I can do it by myself, but I will certainly support this and help pick up this battle. It’s time to have this conversation in this city, it is way overdue.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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