Minority Report: Racial Disparities Persist in the ‘Burgh

Jan 27, 2015

A view of the Hill District framed by Downtown buildings
Credit Jon Dawson / Flickr

A recent report by the University of Pittsburgh suggests that Pittsburgh, often touted as one of America’s most livable cities, might not be so livable for African Americans.

The report highlights the racial disparities affecting the quality of life for Pittsburgh’s black residents.

Larry Davis, Dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and director of its Center on Race and Social Problems, discusses the report’s findings and their implications for those invested in racial equity in Pittsburgh.

Compared to white Pittsburghers, black and hispanic people have larger employment problems, are more likely to live in poverty and experience higher rates of death resulting from chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease.

Davis says the study shows how little has changed since 2007, when the initial study upon which this latest report is based, was undertaken. The story that’s told by the report, Davis explains, is that Pittsburgh suffers from many of the same racial disparities as other American cities.

In trying to assess why not much has changed in eight years, Davis suggests that when it comes to employment and so on, people typically have vested interests in the status quo, and sticking to “business as usual” serves to frustrate change.

Talking about racial disparities in hiring, he says that the problem involves some degree of selective bias: people tend to hire those they’re personally acquainted with, for instance. Because society is largely segregated, networking opportunities are as well.

And, problems of race and class often work together, Davis emphasizes. While white people who are poorer tend to be surrounded by those with higher incomes, poor blacks frequently reside in entire communities of poor blacks.

Talking about his own success as an African American, Davis says he attributes it primarily to luck.

“It’s like I hit the lottery. The odds on me being where I am are astronomical. I mean, I’m the only one of my friends who graduated from high school. … People say, ‘Well, did you work hard?’ Yeah, I worked hard, but not really that much harder than anybody else. I mean, things worked for me.”

But luck is hardly a program for social equity, Davis stresses, and that’s why he advocates systemic solutions to counter systemic problems.