The central falsehood of this piece, and from which myriad others stem, is that racism is what one is and not what one does. Racist words and deeds can and do come from people that are not grotesque Bull Connor types, but are in fact every day, often well-meaning, people. It’s telling that the article chose to cite Connor, a man born in 1897, as the face of Apex Racism. The implication, as it so often is, is that the Civil Rights movement legally got what it wanted, and any major racist acts, say, Dylann Roof’s massacre at the Emanuel AME Church (to stick with their example), are an aberration – a detestable rarity that all normal people can recognize.
Those of us who work in community and economic development, and more importantly, those of us that face racism personally, know that there is something more potent and faceless than any one person: structural racism – thousands of small policy choices made over several generations that enmesh us and lift up some while making life harder for others. Mass incarceration, police brutality, environmental degradation, medical malpractice and neglect, unchecked abandonment and blight, housing discrimination: these are big ideas, driven by people making choices. If you have a policy that results in Black people being arrested for marijuana possession at four times the rate of White people, it doesn’t matter the law itself doesn’t explicitly target of people of color – the impact is measurable.
And sometimes, the law is explicit. PCRG would not exist if it were not for the practice of redlining, a once de jure, now de facto, practice of prohibiting federal mortgage lending in undesirable (read: too Black, too ethnic, too poor) neighborhoods. Could the men who drew these maps of Pittsburgh know that their actions were just part of a chain of actions that set whole communities down separate paths, with chasms that haven’t closed in almost a century? Would they think of themselves as racists? Maybe not.
Pittsburgh should listen – as it should have when Black citizens were intentionally left out of the post-World War II housing boom, or when the Lower Hill was demolished for an arena, or when Manchester was cut in half to build a highway to the suburbs – to what people of color and immigrants are saying about how policy affects their lives. For the predominantly White power holders in Pittsburgh, humbling oneself in the face of another’s truth could go a long way.