Race and class in Pittsburgh

Driving for Lyft, I wind up going in all sorts of neighborhoods. In the Pittsburgh area especially, I have noticed that in some neighborhoods that I would identify as predominantly Black, I get a second look from the locals.

Today it happened even when I had an elderly Black man in the passenger seat. I am not offended because I am well aware that the inverse situation occurs much more seriously for Blacks in predominantly white neighborhoods. That latter part is the part I don’t really see.

My passenger, I think, understood I took no offense. He explained that they think I’m a cop or I’m looking for drugs. He was apologetic about that, saying this isn’t the way it should be but rather the way it is.

I’ve had another Black passenger a couple times. He’s a retired high-ranking military officer with a security clearance. He lives in a very expensive condominium complex in a very expensive area of Mount Washington with views of downtown Pittsburgh from across the Monongahela River. He’s afraid to drive because he’s been stopped so many times he’s afraid he’ll be killed.

Because over and over again, that’s what cops do. And this in an area where I’ve seen almost no traffic enforcement. Almost.

As I was driving out of McKeesport the other day, a police officer was on my tail. He wasn’t after me but rather going to back up another officer who had pulled over an SUV. The driver of the SUV? A black female. I was looking very quickly but I think she had her kids in the car.

I’m on the front lines of a lot of social issues driving here. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ case for reparations draws heavily on a history of redlining,[1] Without having checked a history of demographic change in the Pittsburgh area, it is apparent to me that many of the neighborhoods I would identify as predominantly Black were redlined. This includes communities on both sides of the Monongahela (that don’t offer spectacular views of downtown) and some on the south side of the Ohio River. It also includes a number of neighborhoods and communities like the East Hills area where I dropped off that elderly Black man.

With the visible racial disparities there is poverty. And slums. And abandoned buildings.

I also picked up a graduate student along Fifth Avenue today. He had walked—he was guessing—about a mile along the street and demanded to know what had happened. Was this, he asked, where the steel mills had been?

I didn’t think so. I’ve seen places where I think the mills used to be. These were slums and abandoned buildings. But I honestly don’t know the story. As I took him where he was going, a few buildings didn’t seem so bad. But, I said, look over there. Across the street we were about to turn onto stood a boarded up apartment building. And so it went.

It turns out the student I had picked up was studying urban planning. The problems he was seeing first hand are problems he wants to solve.

But of course part of that means understanding how the fuck things got to be the way they are. I could tell him that redlining was fairly obvious part of the picture. But I’m sure there’s more and I don’t know it. So I wasn’t able to answer his question.

One problem I face is that just because I drive people around for Lyft, I don’t stop being a critical theorist. I’m sensitive to the issues of power relationships and poverty is very much one of those issues. So is discrimination.

And sometimes I feel a need to back away, to regain a sense of perspective. I can’t. Because I go where the Lyft orders take me. Seven days a week, just trying to keep my head above water financially.

But I also know there’s a history here. Yeah, I’m interested in all those historical markers all over the place. I’d like to read a few of them.

But then there’s the history we don’t talk about because, as I explained to my student, to talk about them is to confront our ideologies. This is the history that I, as a critical theorist, am interested in.

And don’t have time to study.

  1. [1]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

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