The Tree of Life shooting devastated all of Pittsburgh. I can’t help but ask: Why aren’t Black lives mourned this way?

The entire community should grieve over the Tree of Life tragedy, writes Tereneh Idia, but she wonders: "Why is there such a double standard? If all lives matter, why aren’t Black lives mourned this way?" (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The entire community should grieve over the Tree of Life tragedy, writes Tereneh Idia, but she wonders: "Why is there such a double standard? If all lives matter, why aren’t Black lives mourned this way?" (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Compelling personal stories
told by the people living them.

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.

In the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy, 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, writes Tereneh Idia. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy, 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, writes Tereneh Idia. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“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 tereneh@gmail.com.

13 thoughts on “The Tree of Life shooting devastated all of Pittsburgh. I can’t help but ask: Why aren’t Black lives mourned this way?

  1. Non-black people don’t know what it’s like to be black. That’s not a knock against you or anybody, it’s not an insult, it’s just a fact. Having empathy for somebody else’s lived experience isn’t the same as actually understanding said lived experience. That’s why you have to listen and pass the mic to those qualified to speak on things that you have never lived through.

    Nobody said the community support doesn’t matter or that it’s disingenuous. What I found disingenuous was your perspective. Listing off the ways you’ve helped in the past doesn’t mean you no longer have work to do. Showing up to rallies is great, but that doesn’t absolve you or anybody else from being called in or asked to reflect in the future, beyond that moment. That’s not how ally-ship works.

    It’s telling that you see critique from the community you claim to stand with as “manufacturing hate and discord.” I encourage you to step back and reflect on why your perception has skewed receiving feedback from marginalized people as hate. I’m a woman of color so I’m gonna take my word over yours on this one that I’m fully capable of being able to gauge who is and isn’t on my side. I’m gonna ask that you step back and think about how patronizing, condescending, and infantilizing it is to tell black and brown people that you know who’s on our side better than we do.

    Listen, I get it. I understand the defensiveness. We’ve all been there. I’m an ally to many other communities because I have privilege in various ways as a straight, non-disabled, cis-gendered individual. Privilege isn’t exclusive to race, that’s why when members of a marginalized community that I’m not part of provide feedback, even if it makes me uncomfortable, it’s a requirement for me to listen. I listen and work through it because my reaction has nothing to do with them and everything to do with subconscious biases and/or having conflicting thought processes, aka cognitive dissonance on what I believe and how my beliefs actually impact people in a real way.

    I’m not gonna respond after this because I’m confident with my stance and perspective on this and I am grateful to the countless allies who understand why articles like these are important. Something is missing the mark with you but I’m hopeful that you can unpack why. You seem like a smart person, here’s a great article that I’ve seen a lot of white allies pass around. It could help you unpack some of the issues with your responses. Best of luck! https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/

  2. In your narrative, non-black people can’t understand because of privilege, and the community support against police brutality does not matter because it’s merely an attempt to look supportive of the value of black lives for some kind of tally?

    What a wonderfully terrible place you have imagined for yourself and our community. How convenient to the narrative that a whole section of the country cannot possibly understand and that any help or support received is disingenuous. It is tempting, once one has found a cause, to see the world only in ways that support that cause, regardless of reality. It is always challenging to break out of an “echo chamber” and interact with those that present opposing viewpoints. This happens so little these days.

    Well, I’m not buying into that fantasy. While I agree that there is a large amount of work left to do, this article is using a tragedy to try to manufacture hate and discord. That tactic is reprehensible. It is reprehensible when it is used to push gun control minutes after a mass shooting, it is reprehensible when it is used to push immigration control after a high profile “immigrant” involved crime, and it is reprehensible here, and disrespectful to the families of the people killed in the massacre.

    People, the ones telling you how different you are, how nobody else understands you but them, how you need their help are NEVER on your side.

  3. Addressing the work that still needs to be done, work that actually never ends, is not promoting “hate and division,” it’s highlighting the hate and division that still exists. I urge you to step back and think about what’s making you so defensive in responding to this piece telling uncomfortable truths. You don’t get to dismiss black or brown people telling you they believe the response wouldn’t have been the same if it were a black church. There are life experiences you have never lived through that inform that perspective and it’s a privilege to be able to believe otherwise.

    Instead of telling people to open their eyes, try listening to understand and not simply to form a response. Ally is not a self-appointed term, it’s not a card you’re given after punching off your “rallies attended for black lives” membership, ally is something that you do and that work never ends. There is no end point ranking in which you stop learning and bettering yourself by reaching for humility when called in by the community you claim to stand with. Self-reflection and discomfort is required.

    This article challenges you the same way it challenges systems of white supremacy: by revealing the truth. And how we respond to the truth is a commentary on the work we have to do as individuals. Don’t be mad at the mirror, be mad at the reflection.

  4. When you see somebody use the “What about Chicago”, don’t waste your energy responding. Cause the subtext of their comment is transparent, and easily translates to: “Black people don’t care about black on black crime, so they have no reason to complain when white people kill them too.” Make no mistake, you’re arguing with somebody being blatantly racist. You cannot reason with racism because racism is illogical.

    This is not a person arguing in good faith, nor a person who actually cares about lives lost in Chicago or any other place in this country. This is a person attempting to create false equivalences to absolve them of accountability for the very obvious prejudices that are currently blinding them from unpacking why they’re so angry at black people speaking up address the double standards of whose lives have value by America’s standards.

  5. I disagree with much of what you’re saying about discrimination against Jews. It’s often more subtle than racism but it absolutely still exists. But I’m really not going to argue with you about that because it’s not the point. What you’re not getting is that it’s not a contest. Yes institutional racism against black people is a problem. A big problem. But it has NOTHING to do with the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. A synagogue full of people who just wanted to worship in peace were murdered for being Jewish. There is no room for “what about me”. It’s NOT ABOUT YOU.

  6. Actually, in the USA, antisemitism is a pretty minor problem compared to anti-black racism and the institutional legacy of slavery in the USA. There has not been any kind of documented discriminatory treatment of Jews in hiring, firing, housing, redlining, law enforcement, courts, labor organizing, access to public facilities, access to retail spaces, etc since the 1920-30s. Blacks still face all of these kinds or racist impediments every day.

  7. I’m not in denial about black people being killed by racist cops. At
    all. But Tree of Life shooting was not about black people. It was about
    antisemitism which is also a huge problem. Not everything is about the
    black community. When innocent civilians are shot down in their place of
    worship the proper response is “that’s terrible” not “well what about
    us”?

  8. I resent this being made into a Black Lives Matter issue. This reminds me a little of single mothers making Father’s Day about them. When the church in Charleston was shot up, they absolutely were mourned just as much as the Tree of Life victims were – and the victims of that shooting were black.

    The fact is that houses of worship are sanctuaries. A shooter violating a house of worship is particularly shocking and heinous. Add to that fact that several of the casualties were Holocaust survivors who then, after rebuilding their lives and living into their golden years ended up shot in their place of worship here in the US by an anti-Semite – yeah, that’s something people are going to notice. As they should.

    Yes it’s a problem that people, including within the black community, seem numb to the sheer number of needless black deaths. Little kids getting caught in the crossfire in drive by shootings all over Chicago every summer. Perhaps the author should ask the media why they don’t report it, why people aren’t talking more about why black children can’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods. But this isn’t the context for that conversation and it’s frankly offensive that the author would attempt to frame the discussion in this manner.

  9. Because blacks aren’t a sympathetic group. in 2017 the following happened.

    223 blacks were killed by police.Out of 900+ people killed by police.
    blacks killed 500 white people
    whites killed (excluding police) 229 blacks
    blacks killed 2380 other black people.

    As long as 70% of black children are born to single parents, the black community is fucked.

  10. This is a great example of the kind of duplicity we see in journalism today. You emphasize the (admittedly stupid) comment by the mayor in the Antwon Rose case while choosing not to highlight the throngs of Pittsburghers (national news): white, African American, and other that shut down Pittsburgh’s highways and city streets, demanding justice for Antwon Rose. I was there. The city mourned for Antwon, protesting for justice until the officer in charge was indicted. This doesn’t fit your narrative of hate, so it was conveniently left out. Are there idiots who are going to say ignorant and racist things? Sure, just look at the comment below this one.

    When can we stop trying to use horrible tragedies to promote a message of hate and division? How about focusing on how the community came together to support each other? Frankly, the suggestion that if the church had been primarily frequented by African Americans that the community would not have come together, not have been outraged, not have been eager to help is racist and offensive.

    Try opening your eyes to the people that have opened their arms. You’ll find there are more than you think.

  11. wow. i am so sorry. i grew up in pittsburgh. i love & miss it. i had close black friends, in the mid to late 1970’s, with whom i worked at ussteel. i hated any racism, & more than just not BE racist, i felt i had to act above & beyond that…in a real attempt to fight any racism around me. i live in a mostly white little suburb now….which isnt pleasant for me….after 20 years in an oakland california ghetto, which i loved, & which i dearly miss…but the cost of living became impossible for me, 64 yrs old & disabled now.
    i am so sorry that you dont “recognize” the pittsburgh described as loving & welcoming & tolerant.
    in too many ways, i know why you dont. i pushed boundaries, & i was an outsider myself, in most ways. i studied the holocaust since i was 11 years old, after finding a thick testimony in my grade school library, & its colored my entire life since. so i wept here alone, for a week or more, after the tree of life massacre. had it been a massacre at a black church, i’d have wept the same, i promise you.
    bx i still think of pittsburgh as my city … & i had more close black friends there than i’ve had since, unfortunately. in oakland…lots of acquaintances, from “the street”, to & from the corner liquor store, saeed’s, & i loved them as well. my islamic yemenese & afghani friends. i wont listen to hate speech about THAT group of people, either.
    i gotta say…yeah. call in black, whenever you need to. i dont blame you. i called in “sick” often, when i worked full-time…bx i have mental illnesses. & for the longest time, felt like i was lying when i called in sick. the thing is…i really was sick. but if aint the flu, it aint nuthin.

    i hope i didnt offend in any way. & i hope its obvious that that’s the last thing i want to do.