Commentary: Pittsburgh is America’s apartheid city

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Jerry Dickinson in Alexandra, South Africa in April 2010. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Dickinson)

Over a decade ago, I was walking along a muddy and crowded alleyway between hundreds of shanty houses in Alexandra. Alex, as it is known, is one of post-apartheid Johannesburg’s most segregated slums and bastion of inequality. I was a young human rights activist and Fulbright Scholar living in South Africa and had just finished advising a group of residents over a water rights dispute. I exited the alleyway onto a busy street. As I weaved through a traffic jam of minivan taxis, known as kombis, a group of giggling young Black children pulled me aside and playfully threw a tennis ball at me. They knew I was not a local and were curious to interact. I smiled and crouched down. I caught a few passes, gave some hugs and continued on my way. 

A decade later, I was criss-crossing the Pittsburgh region to knock doors and meet residents as a candidate for U.S. Congress, before the pandemic abruptly sidelined my travels. I met a Black single mother of three young children on her porch in a dilapidated home in the city’s segregated Hill District. We spoke of housing issues. I could hear her kids playing and giggling inside. They peeked out the window to see whom their mother was speaking with. I smiled at the kids. But, I turned solemn as I departed that pleasant exchange. Like the children in Alex, Black children in my hometown were growing up in one of the nation’s least livable and unequal cities for Black Americans, according to the landmark race and gender equity study published in 2019. At that moment, I had arrived at an uncomfortable truth. Pittsburgh was America's apartheid city, not the nation's most livable city.

It is a jarring comparison at first blush. The legacy of South Africa’s apartheid had forcibly, by law, separated people by racial classifications and into geographically isolated districts. The result was severe levels of occupational segregation. Schools were separated along race lines and the gap in education achievement was wide. Health outcomes for women and children were markedly different between whites and Blacks. The economic chasm across race was growing. It was indisputable that the apartheid legacy contributed to Johannesburg’s vast levels of racial inequality. How could Pittsburgh possibly compare? At best the contrast seemed historically inaccurate and at worst culturally and racially insensitive. But, as sociologists Nancy Denton and Douglas Massey once explained in their seminal work, American Apartheid, “Americans have been quick to criticize the apartheid system of South Africa, [but] they have been reluctant to acknowledge the consequences of their own institutionalized system of racial separation.” 

Indeed, the apartheid comparison is apt if we dig beneath the surface. There, we find irrefutably sobering facts that contradict Pittsburgh’s romanticized moniker of “America’s most livable city.” A confluence of private and state actions has led to a long history of segregation and discrimination in Pittsburgh. Like Johannesburg, these past practices have established a comparatively “firm basis for a broader system of racial injustice” today. Although the history of Pittsburgh’s apartheid may not have been “rooted in the legal strictures” of its Johannesburg relative, the city’s policies and practices, like many localities that are comparably segregated in the United States and South Africa, have been “no less effective in perpetuating racial inequality.” 

Jerry Dickinson speaking with a resident of Homewood in October 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Jerry Dickinson)

Examples abound. The razing of the lower Hill District to make way for an arena was catastrophic to Black Pittsburgh, displacing thousands to isolated grey fortress housing projects. The mass displacement of East Liberty exacerbated racial exclusion. Aggressive redlining throughout the city quietly pushed Black residents to concentrated pockets, such as Homewood, Larimer and Lincoln-Lemington. Racial steering cornered Black and Brown communities into silos. Pittsburgh created an “exclusionary zoning” code that maximized the proximity and separation between low-income renters and homeowners in specific neighborhoods to effectively establish de facto racial zoning. And the acceleration of gentrification in recent decades has made the Pittsburgh region a tale of two cities that mirrors a de facto apartheid city. There were also regional spillover effects. 

A decades-long system of housing discrimination practices in predominantly Black suburbs forced poor residents into segregated public housing enclaves in Braddock, Clairton, Rankin and Wilkinsburg. Illegal school segregation practices quarantined Black children in Braddock and Rankin from the predominantly white suburbs of Forest Hills, Edgewood, Swissvale, Churchill and Turtle Creek to “perpetuate, exacerbate and maximize segregation of school pupils.” 

The hallmark of South Africa’s apartheid cities was not simply segregation. It was the racial inequalities exacerbated by the segregation. Likewise, for decades, Pittsburgh sowed a divided urban landscape that contributed to the city producing some of the nation's starkest racial disparities, which have only grown starker as a result of the pandemic disproportionately devastating Black and Brown communities. It is the growth of extreme racial disparities existing within Pittsburgh’s segregated landscape that puts the city in a league of its own compared to other American cities. Indeed, Black residents in Pittsburgh fall “far below similar cities” in health, income, employment and educational outcomes as a consequence.

The evidence is ample. The poverty that exists within Pittsburgh’s segregated landscape is connected to this history. More Black children in Pittsburgh grow up in poverty than 95 percent of similar cities, while one-third of Black women live in poverty in the city. They are five times more likely to be poor than white men. The dire health outcomes linked to poverty between whites and Blacks, a trademark of apartheid, are some of the worst in the country. 

Jerry Dickinson talking to a resident in the Hill District in January 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Jerry Dickinson)

Black adult mortality rates are higher in Pittsburgh than almost every other similarly situated city, and Black male homicide rates are some of the highest in the country. Black mothers are three times more likely compared to white mothers to give birth to extremely low weight babies. Black infant mortality rate is much higher than white babies in Pittsburgh and across the country, while fetal deaths are two times more likely among Black women compared to white women. In fact, the inequality between white and Black maternal mortality rates is greater than in most other cities. The disparities extend into the workforce. 

The city has one of the highest rates of occupational segregation between whites and Blacks in America. White women make 78 cents to every dollar, while Black women make just 54 cents. Black men have some of the lowest average incomes in the country. The sharp division in employment and occupational inequality between whites and Blacks also leads to significant differences in educational attainment across race. White men and women are three times more likely to have a college degree than Black men and women. Black men are two and a half times more likely to drop out of high school than white students. This is modern American apartheid.

A moral reckoning is upon us. We must reorient the lens for which we gaze at Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is not the nation’s most livable city. It is America’s apartheid city. The future success of any metropolis depends on a moral vision that its residents feel they can identify with and attach themselves to. It is obvious, then, that our collective moral imperative is to end Pittsburgh’s apartheid and to become a world-class city of racial equality. That is our vision for Pittsburgh. That is our moral imperative. As a father of two Black daughters, whether we choose to pursue this vision and embrace this imperative will be the defining characteristic of our generation. 

Jerry Dickinson is a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and former candidate for U.S. Congress. He teaches constitutional law, property and race and the law. He was a Fulbright Scholar to South Africa. He can be reached at jerry.dickinson@pitt.edu.

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