In the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy, where 11 Jewish worshippers were killed by a white supremacist terrorist, the world heard from elected officials, professional sports teams and even national celebrities that in Pittsburgh we, “Love Thy Neighbor, No Exceptions.”
Many in Pittsburgh’s African-American community wondered what city they were talking about. With little time to grieve and ponder the ramifications of this latest white supremacist violence, African-Americans had to quickly reconcile the onslaught of media describing a city of love that they do not recognize.
As a Falk School and Taylor Allderdice High School alum, Squirrel Hill was a consistent part of my childhood. In a deeply segregated and racist city, Squirrel Hill was one of the few predominantly white neighborhoods where I felt comfortable. After the Tree of Life tragedy, I was in pain not only for the loss of life but also because I understood that as a Black person, white supremacist-motivated killing is also directed at my community.
However, this connection is not being made by many others, particularly those with a broad public platform. Do we see the same outpouring of support and unity when a victim or victims are Black? No.
This is the city where the mayor goes out of his way to clarify that Antwon Rose II, a 17-year-old Black boy gunned down by a police officer, wasn’t killed within city boundaries without offering condolences. (The mayor later apologized). This is the city where its football team has decided to ignore players’ right to protest police violence but readily emblazons “Stronger than Hate” on their cleats to honor the synagogue victims.
Yes, the entire community should grieve over this tragedy. But why is there such a double standard? If all lives matter, why aren’t Black lives mourned this way? I felt isolated by these thoughts and wondered if I was alone.
Through social media, I asked others for their reflections in response to the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy. What follows are thoughts of African-Americans living in Pittsburgh, edited for brevity and clarity. Many have asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal for expressing ideas different from the apparent mainstream.
“There is a keen awareness of the hyper response to and support of these victims, their families, and the broader community vs. the response to Antwon Rose’s murder in June. The idea that our community cannot hold space for both tragedies without being accused of maleficence saddens me. I am hopeful that the entire situation will help Pittsburgh think more critically about how we treat our neighbors and respond in times of strife. Our freedom is bound in and directly tied to a recognition that the struggle against oppression faced by all marginalized communities must be approached as a collective. Our freedom depends on each other.” —“N.W.” 30, North Side
“My experiences in this city as an Afro-Latina have been marred with blatant racism. I don’t even attend certain establishments because of how the bouncers or customers have treated me or other people of color. If we are to stand up to hate as a city and community, it should include everyone who is a victim of hate.” —Krizia Bruno, 20s, Pittsburgh
“I've been wondering if this same sense of ‘community’ would be there if this had happened at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church (in Larimer)?” —“H.N.” 40s, Pittsburgh
“Did I miss something? I don't remember this much support when our people were being attacked… Maybe I'm overlooking something, but in the wake of the recent events, I feel a bit left out in this sense of community.” —”Kidmental” 36, Avalon
“I’ve spent time in several Southern states and I have never received the level of racism as I have experienced here in Pittsburgh. On a daily basis, something happens. I’m consistently correcting people and combating stereotypes. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been called a n*gger!...My poor babies, I’m doing my best to make sure [my children] do not internalize the negativity they receive. Pittsburgh has a long way to go.” —“R.H” 37, Penn Hills
Your Black neighbors also need time and support to heal and deal with the constant battle against racism and/or another tragic killing. “I need to call in Black today” is a phrase used internally by the Black community, a joke to cover the pain of not being given the space to mourn in public, at work or at school when Black blood has been shed.
“Even though I work in a place where political conversations are not held, I dreaded coming in on the Monday after [the synagogue shooting]. [One person] was crying endlessly and between loud sobs, she said, ‘So much hate, so much violence and killing of people who were in their place of worship, nowhere is safe.’ Where was all this talk about hate and violence [before]?” —“L.O.” 60’s, North Side
“I personally feel a distance from this shooting that I am not proud of but am also not hating myself for either. It feels like Squirrel Hill could be in Florida to me. I’ve tried to connect but it isn’t coming. The response of this city and country is also distancing because it shows what Pittsburgh love looks like and so it reminds me of how it doesn’t love Black people — Black children, particularly. I also can't seem to reconcile the comments made in light of this tragedy by authority figures in Pittsburgh’s predominantly white institutions with the persistent quiet, deadly racism of these institutions. Still trying to link and make sense of it all.” Justin Laing, 30s, Hill District
One of the reasons the Black Lives Matter movement is so important and polarizing is because time and time again we show through our policy, celebrations, media and, in this case, mourning that we as a city and as a country do not value Black lives the same way we do others. This truth breaks my heart.
Every time I see “Pittsburgh Strong” emblazoned on a public bus; every “Stronger Than Hate” post from a friend who has never mentioned the murders of Black and Brown people; every vigil photo posted from a person who said they’d never attend a march, my heart sinks a little. I have to reaffirm my life and my value to myself — if not to this city or to anyone else.
Tereneh Idia is a designer and writer. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.