December 5, 2019
Pittsburgh city council witnessed a cascade of information and emotion Thursday afternoon, as experts, activists and officials laid out the case for declaring racism to be a public health crisis and urged a comprehensive and citywide fight to address it.
A three-hour special afternoon meeting in a full council chamber was to precede an evening public hearing at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District. Likely coming later this month: votes on a trio of bills that would declare the crisis, create a forum to draft solutions, and begin the gathering of resources.
“We are creating something that is absolutely an historic moment in the city of Pittsburgh,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess, one of the authors of the bills, at one point in the testimony.
“This is the beginning of a years-long process of creating innovative policy which will drive resources to change our city,” he added at the afternoon’s end. “We have this moment to do this.”
The afternoon meeting was punctuated by applause, affirmation and occasional argument from the audience.
People are in pain, Rev. Burgess said of the outbursts of emotion. “When they’re in pain, they’re going to cry out.”
Much of the testimony, though, was densely factual, working through University of Pittsburgh public health research showing that the city’s — or at times Allegheny County’s — African Americans, compared to whites, are:
● living shorter lives, more due to conditions like heart disease than to violence
● suffering far higher rates of infant mortality and extreme low birth weight
● five times as likely to grow up in poverty
● suffering many other health and socioeconomic disparities.
“America’s most livable city is also the least livable city for African Americans,” said Rev. Burgess.
“Its not getting better,” added Junia Howell, an urban sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh and a co-author of a report issued earlier this year entitled Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race.
Noble A-W Maseru, professor of behavioral and community health sciences and director of Pitt’s Center for Health Equity, noted the life expectancy difference between mostly white Highland Park (84 years) and nearby, mostly black Larimer (62 years).
Racism weathers the body, accelerating aging, said Dara D. Mendez, assistant professor of epidemiology at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. Communitywide, it “saps the strength of society through a waste of community resources,” she said.
“We’ve got to eliminate the gaps,” said Jerome Taylor, associate professor of Africana studies at Pitt. “Now the question becomes, can we do it?”
He appeared to be holding back tears as he said: “The expected outcomes would be justice, and freedom, at last.”
But how to start?
“Recognizing and naming racism as a public health crisis is a critical first step in dismantling structures and systems of oppression that not only impede health and wellbeing but are related to schooling, education, and include systems of housing and employment, just to name a few,” said Ms. Mendez.
Rev. Burgess and Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle have co-authored a proposed resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, and making a broad call for continued work on the issue within city government. Mr. Burgess said the resolution was modeled on legislation in Milwaukee County and Madison, Wis.
A related resolution would create a new All-In Cities Leadership Forum, which would meet quarterly, and in public, to discuss implementation of changes that would lead to a more inclusive city.
The third would authorize the All-In Cities Investment Fund, which would work with the Downtown-based Poise Foundation on “development projects and entrepreneurial activities” consistent with those goals. The resolutions do not allocate any city funds.
“We want to challenge the rest of the community — the nonprofits, the corporate community, down to the entrepreneurs,” Rev. Burgess said in an interview prior to the meeting, to, for instance, be “intentional about promoting, recruiting and maintaining African Americans in every part of the fabric of this community.”
The city’s response will reflect whether it wants to settle for small improvements or “embrace the transformational destiny for life and hope that comes from working together for equity,” said Homewood Children’s Village director Shannah Tharp-Gilliam.
“We don’t need to come back to another table in another 10 years and the statistics are just as bad as they were 10 years before,” said Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project.
Seven members of council attended all or some of the meeting. None professed any opposition to the resolutions.
“This white councilman from the South Hills is in full support of Councilman Burgess and Councilman Lavelle,” said Councilman Anthony Coghill. “I came here to listen today, more than anything, and I learned a lot — a lot of figures that are really discouraging.”
“We heard the very overwhelming number that 45% of African Amerian children live in poverty in the city of Pittsburgh,” added Councilwoman Deb Gross. “This is not some other municipality. This is us. And we need to do better.”
Mr. Lavelle characterized the issue as central to the city’s long-term survival.
“There is no city in America that is growing simply because white people do well. That is not happening in our country,” he said. Pittsburgh, he noted, has been consistently losing population for decades. “That means our city is actually dying, despite the accolades.”
He concluded that it’s not demographics, but racism, that has devastated some neighborhoods.
“We should not be trying to fix the people,” he said. “We have to fix the structural system that is not allowing them to succeed and improve.”