The banners and the guns: Flagrant racism in Pittsburgh

See updates through April 6, 2021, at end of post.



Fig. 1. A banner commemorating war dead in Clairton, Pennsylvania. Photograph by author, September 21, 2019.

We are now most of the way through September and the banners (example, figure 1) that went up around Memorial Day commemorating—overwhelmingly white, even where many Blacks live—war dead are now mostly, not entirely, down. They have been coming down much more slowly than they went up. And since I arrived in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area, a little less than five months ago, I have been horrified by the displays of artillery, especially around areas that appear to me to have high proportions of Blacks in the population.

The case I’ve built that these displays are racist has largely been associative, circumstantial, and not really an argument that can pass theoretical muster.[1] In one case, I have witnessed blatant racism in action,[2] such as I had never, ever, seen anything like before, that I have taken to confirm what has still been a rough outline of my argument.

It is time to remedy this as best I can.

First, to state my geographic location relative to the topic, I come here from California, having departed that state on April 14, 2019,[3] initially intending to move to western Massachusetts, but finding the housing situation there untenable,[4] so arriving in Pittsburgh on April 24.[5] I now reside in the South Hills area, outside the city limits of Pittsburgh, but in a Pittsburgh zip code, near and on the opposite side of Pennsylvania Route 51 from the Mon Valley area, one area among many around Pittsburgh that conforms remarkably well to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of historically redlined areas.[6] When I speak of Pittsburgh, as most people here seem to do, I speak of a larger metropolitan area rather than that strictly within the city limits.

Second, Scott Sernau noted that students of social inequality tend to emphasize the forms of inequality that affect themselves but that all forms of inequality (he lists race, class, and gender, but we can add others) are intertwined in a Gordian knot.[7] And accordingly, to state my social location relative to the topic, I have tended to approach social inequality from the perspective of class. I have been working class most of my life. Having gotten sucked into the dot-com boom, I have been unable to find gainful employment since the crash in 2001 even as I returned to school, finished a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. (the last of these formally awarded in 2016). To say this situation has been enormously frustrating for me would be an understatement.[8] I currently drive, full time, seven days a week, for Lyft and, while I am disgusted by misclassification of workers as “independent contractors” and the consequent denial of the benefits of actual employment, it must also be said that I fear for the future of the industry, and thus my own.[9] I am by no means financially secure.

Which is all to say I did not come to Pittsburgh to study race. The problem has presented itself to me, especially while driving around the area for Lyft, and, as a critical theorist, I cannot simply turn a blind eye. I am seeing racism.

The banners commemorating almost exclusively white war dead construct a recognition of military valor as almost exclusively white. People of all races have fought and died in Amerikkka’s endless wars. But pretty much only dead whites are honored. The omission here of war dead of other races is striking: Of the likely thousands of these banners I have observed, probably fewer than ten commemorate Blacks.

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Fig. 2. Weapons displayed in Clairton, Pennsylvania. Photograph by author, September 20, 2019.

Attendant with this display of white military valor is the prominent display of heavy artillery pieces and other military hardware, especially near areas I would identify as predominantly Black, areas that very much appear to conform to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of redlined areas.[10] Clairton, for example, has a field gun and a rocket at the confluence of Desiderio Boulevard, East Drive, and Baker Avenue, a navigationally significant intersection (figure 2). In or near Carrick, such a gun stands guard over the South Side Cemetery (figure 3). As one turns right into McKeesport off the bridge from Duquesne, there is yet another gun at 5th Avenue and Lysle Boulevard—right across the street from the McKeesport Hospital (figure 4). These are examples off the top of my head. There are many more, mostly in areas with high proportions of Blacks in the population, though I think more get wheeled out near patriotic holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

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Fig. 3. A weapon stands guard at the South Side Cemetery in the Carrick neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Photograph by author, September 22, 2019.

Fig. 4. A weapon on display in McKeesport. A cemetery (not in image) is at left, a hospital behind it. Photograph by author, September 20, 2019.

I simply don’t know how else to interpret this: If, for all practical purposes, we only recognize white military valor and then display artillery near Black areas, this has to be a message to Blacks from whites: Keep your place. Keep in line. Whites still have the guns. Whites are proud of using those guns. Whites are even proud of dying, using those guns. For me, the connection of gun nuttery to white supremacism is complete.

And that connection is confirmed when, as on that day, I saw a police officer refuse to restrain his dog viciously barking at a Black man from a car a lane away in traffic. That officer didn’t even roll up the window.[11] And it is confirmed again when, so far, every time I pick up at a district court, my passenger is a Black man in trouble for some number of traffic violations—in an area where I have so rarely seen any traffic enforcement at all. Certainly none of this helps to exonerate police from allegations of racism.

While the connection between race and police shootings remains in dispute, it is indisputable that Blacks perceive they are being unjustly targeted[12] and I have been sympathetic to that perception. Whatever the truth of that perception, police are armed; their actions and inactions are inherently and inevitably accompanied by an implicit threat of even lethal violence. Just as with the artillery pieces around redlined areas. Just as with the viciously barking police dog.

As a white man facing long-term unemployment even in a time when unemployment has been reported to be low, I’ve been slow to really recognize my own white privilege. To be utterly ignored on the job market, even with a Ph.D., doesn’t feel much like privilege at all. But I see that privilege here and now.


Update, September 22, 2019: I have added photographs of artifacts I mention in this post.

Update, October 12, 2019: I have now mapped the locations of gratuitously displayed weaponry. This map is an ongoing project and will be updated as I find more weaponry. Photographs of the weapons are publicly available, as are my notes. In addition, the University of Richmond has a map and documentation of some redlined areas in Pittsburgh as of 1937.

Update, November 13, 2020: The Federal Bureau of Investigation says Pittsburgh is a “hub” for white supremacism, including, possibly, violent white supremacism. The FBI is limited in its investigations because much of the activity is talk—speech, protected by the First Amendment—and not actually criminal.[13]

Update, November 17, 2020: I had a young passenger not so long ago and as we were driving across Mount Lebanon, I noted the prevalence of Confederate flags, not so much there, but elsewhere around Pittsburgh. He pointed out that we are north of the Mason-Dixon Line and said that people around here mostly think of those who fly those flags as nuts.

That may be true. But there are a lot of those Confederate flags, often side-by-side with thin blue line flags, often side-by-side with Trump flags. Corresponding bumper stickers often sit side-by-side with those supporting alleged[14] gun rights. I no longer have any doubt that those who defend the police are, in fact, white supremacist, that those who support Trump are, in fact, racist,[15] and even that those who fly the U.S. flag day after day are highly likely to be racist.[16] All of these are emblems of hatred for the “other” and there are an awful lot of what my passenger called “nuts.”

Fig. 5. Gratuitously displayed gun locations. Map created by author, updated as new weapons or related displays are found and recorded.

I didn’t challenge him on this, but I worried that my passenger, and probably a lot of people here, diminish the problem. Most people probably don’t see the signs of white supremacism that I do as they drive out of their neighborhoods onto main roads. Though I’ve talked to a few who’ve also noticed that the banners commemorating military service members are almost invariably of whites. Most don’t even notice the gratuitously displayed guns that are all over the place (figure 5) but especially in or near poor neighborhoods, in an area with a pronounced intersection of race and class.[17]

To see what I see and to diminish it, or to fail to make the association I do, would surely be to be complicit. But I wonder about people who have lived their entire lives in what the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently declared a “hub” for white supremacy[18] and what Ryan Deto reports has been one at least since the 1920s.[19]


Update, April 6, 2021: Since coming to Pittsburgh, I have mostly intuitively and somewhat analytically tied together the militarism, the gratuituously-displayed guns and other weaponry, the banners that honor white veterans almost exclusively, the overwrought displays of so-called patriotism and reverence for veterans, etc., with white supremacy. Nan Levinson pulls the militarism and the white supremacy together more substantively and impressively.[20] I’m not sure what more to say about her article other than, read it. She’s done good.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Race and class in Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, August 3, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/03/race-and-class-in-pittsburgh/; David Benfell, “‘Gun rights’ as white supremacism,” Not Housebroken, August 4, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/04/gun-rights-as-white-supremacism/; David Benfell, “They’re taking our guns away!” Not Housebroken, August 10, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/10/theyre-taking-our-guns-away/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Hey cops! Do you know what year it is?” Not Housebroken, August 27, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/27/hey-cops-do-you-know-what-year-it-is/
  3. [3]David Benfell, “I have left California,” Irregular Bullshit, April 14, 2019, https://disunitedstates.com/2019/04/14/i-have-left-california/
  4. [4]David Benfell, “If you don’t like homelessness, here’s an idea: Make it possible to rent an apartment,” Not Housebroken, April 19, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/04/19/if-you-dont-like-homelessness-heres-an-idea-make-it-possible-to-rent-an-apartment/; David Benfell, “Plan B: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Irregular Bullshit, April 21, 2019, https://disunitedstates.com/2019/04/21/plan-b-pittsburgh-pennsylvania/
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Irregular Bullshit, April 24, 2019, https://disunitedstates.com/2019/04/24/pittsburgh-pennsylvania/
  6. [6]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
  7. [7]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  8. [8]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/
  9. [9]David Benfell, “My experience driving for Uber and Lyft,” April 4, 2017, https://disunitedstates.org/2017/04/04/my-experience-driving-for-uber-and-lyft/; David Benfell, “Colin Kaepernick is right,” Not Housebroken, July 3, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/07/03/colin-kaepernick-is-right/; David Benfell, “Watching the ridesharing shit go down the toilet,” Not Housebroken, July 30, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/07/30/watching-the-ridesharing-shit-go-down-the-toilet/; David Benfell, “Uber appears to be going down,” Not Housebroken, August 11, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/11/uber-appears-to-be-going-down/; David Benfell, “Proof of investor irrationality: The case of Uber (and Lyft),” Not Housebroken, August 22, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/22/proof-of-investor-irrationality-the-case-of-uber-and-lyft/; David Benfell, “Liking Lyft, not liking Uber,” Not Housebroken, August 27, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/27/liking-lyft-not-liking-uber/; David Benfell, “Uber’s spiral down,” Not Housebroken, August 29, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/29/ubers-spiral-down/; David Benfell, “Time for the gig economy to grow up,” Not Housebroken, August 30, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/30/time-for-the-gig-economy-to-grow-up/; David Benfell, “The larger question of California’s AB 5,” Not Housebroken, September 14, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/09/14/the-larger-question-of-californias-ab-5/
  10. [10]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
  11. [11]David Benfell, “Hey cops! Do you know what year it is?” Not Housebroken, August 27, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/27/hey-cops-do-you-know-what-year-it-is/
  12. [12]Brentin Mock, “What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings,” CityLab, August 6, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/08/police-officer-shootings-gun-violence-racial-bias-crime-data/595528/
  13. [13]Ewan Palmer, “FBI Warn White Supremacist Activity in Pittsburgh Among Highest in Country,” Newsweek, November 13, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/pittsburgh-white-supremacist-fbi-far-right-1547149
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Deconstructing the second amendment,” Not Housebroken, October 5, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/10/04/deconstructing-the-second-amendment/
  15. [15]David Benfell, “Donald Trump’s ‘brown shirts,’” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/30/donald-trumps-brown-shirts/
  16. [16]David Benfell, “On patriotism,” Not Housebroken, June 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/06/27/on-patriotism/
  17. [17]David Benfell, “The banners and the guns: Flagrant racism in Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, November 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/09/20/the-banners-and-the-guns-flagrant-racism-in-pittsburgh/; David Benfell, “Donald Trump’s ‘brown shirts,’” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/30/donald-trumps-brown-shirts/
  18. [18]Ewan Palmer, “FBI Warn White Supremacist Activity in Pittsburgh Among Highest in Country,” Newsweek, November 13, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/pittsburgh-white-supremacist-fbi-far-right-1547149
  19. [19]Ryan Deto, “The FBI declared Pgh. a new hub for white supremacy. That ignores decades of history,” Pennsylvania Capital-Star, November 16, 2020, https://www.penncapital-star.com/civil-rights-social-justice/the-fbi-declared-pgh-a-hub-for-white-supremacy-it-has-a-long-history-already/
  20. [20]Nan Levinson, “The Far Right in Uniform,” TomDispatch, April 6, 2021, https://tomdispatch.com/the-far-right-in-uniform/