Report Shows Racial Disparities Persisting in Pittsburgh Region

Jan 13, 2015

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (foreground) listen as University of Pittsburgh Social Work Dean Larry Davis discusses racial disparities in the city and county. Davis is flanked by Center for Race and Social Problems coordinator Sara Berg (left) and associate director Ralph Bangs.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

“We try to be useful.”

That’s what University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work Dean Larry Davis told a group assembled to hear details of a new report on racial disparity from the Center on Race and Social Problems. Davis said he hopes the data coming out of the report will be used to craft policies and programs to reduce racial disparities in education, economics, health care and other areas.

“Pittsburgh’s Racial Demographics 2015: Differences and Disparities” is the second report of its kind from the center. The first was published in 2007, and Davis said little has changed since that report.

One huge difference, though, is that more black than non-black people thought the Pittsburgh police were doing a fair job of policing their communities. 37.8 percent of blacks said the police did a fair job, compared to 16.5 percent of non-blacks. 13.1 percent of non-blacks said police were doing a poor job, compared to 8.8 percent of blacks.

“This is a change from the findings of the 2007 report, where actually a much higher share of whites felt that the police were acting fairly toward them,” said center coordinator Sara Berg. “This report found that the police are actually acting a little bit more fairly toward blacks.”

But most of the data coming out of the report is not as positive, Davis said.

“None of us is happy to report these numbers to you today,” Davis said. “However, we cannot change that which we won’t acknowledge.”

He said one major concern has to do with educational disparities. The report found that white students are much more likely to be proficient in reading and math than non-white students. While the disparity between white students and Asian and Hispanic students can be partially explained by the fact that many of them do not speak English in the home, black students, who typically do speak English at home, showed the lowest levels of proficiency in both reading and math.

Davis said policy makers and educators need to rethink how they approach such problems.

“In fact I find sometimes that people are trying to correct the problem inside the building, when the cause of the problem resides outside of the schoolhouse,” Davis said.

According to Davis, economic conditions contribute to educational disparities. And some programs meant to level the playing field for students from low-income families, such as the Pittsburgh Promise, can actually exacerbate disparities.

He said most black graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools are not eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise either because their GPA is too low or they missed too many days of school. Davis said that means that college and post-secondary education remains more within reach for non-black students than for black students.

“Merely providing opportunity is insufficient,” Davis said. “The population to which you offer that opportunity has to have the capacity to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Davis said, in this way, education, economics, and the criminal justice system are all linked. Black men continue to be incarcerated at much higher rates than non-black men, making up 39 percent of the total prison and jail population but 13 percent of the U.S. population. Davis said research has shown that when men leave or are taken out of communities, those communities become more violent. Furthermore, historic economic neglect of black and low-income neighborhoods has contributed to lack of opportunities for youth, and Davis said they often turn to illicit means of generating income, such as buying and selling narcotics.

“The absence of opportunity runs youth … and black males in particular head on into the criminal justice system,” Davis said. “What I would advocate for is to have greater opportunity, legitimate opportunity for those communities.”

Davis put an emphasis on “legitimate” opportunity because he said often economic initiatives do not benefit those who need the most help. An example, he said, is the much-lauded high-tech boom in Pittsburgh.

“It worries me just a little bit sometimes when I see who comes in, big organizations come in and they want high-tech people,” Davis said. “Where are you going to find those high-tech people? You’re probably not going to find them in some of the low-income neighborhoods.”

The report shows that 1/3 of black residents, 1/4 of Hispanic residents, 1/5 of Asians, and 15 percent of white residents live in poverty in the city of Pittsburgh. Blacks and Hispanics are employed in service occupations at higher rates than other racial groups, while Asians are most likely to be employed in management and professional occupations.

Davis and his team also found racial disparities in health care access and outcomes. In the city of Pittsburgh, the infant mortality rate for blacks is more than twice the rate for whites, 1.2 percent versus 0.6 percent. Additionally, black residents are less likely to have health insurance but more likely to experience diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The full report is available on the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work website.