Pittsburgh Is the Worst City in America for Black People. Here's How It Can Get Better

Photo: Justin Merriman (Getty Images)

If you need an example of the level of danger Pittsburgh’s black population faces for just living in the city, drive down Centre Avenue, go through the Hill District and then North Oakland, and then stop once you find yourself in front of UPMC Shadyside. Park your car, get out, and survey the beautiful campus this hospital sits on. If you glance to your right, you’ll see Hillman Cancer Center, known as one of the best places for treating that disease in the entire world. When done taking that in, walk up the circular driveway to UPMC Shadyside, and enter a spectacular, efficient, and immaculate hospital which is also considered one of the world’s best.

When you’re done there, get back in your car, drive down Centre, make a left at Liberty Ave, go through Bloomfield, make a right on Gross St, and then a left on Friendship Ave until you reach UPMC Children’s Hospital—also known as one of the best hospitals in the world.

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And then, when you’re done viewing and visiting these world-renowned medical facilities, go to Public Source and read that Pittsburgh’s rate of infant mortality for Black babies is more than six times higher than it is for white babies. When done reading, ask yourself how this is possible. How can a place with some of the best hospitals in the world be the same place where the disparities in health outcomes are so stark? The answer is obvious: Pittsburgh, that’s how.

These disparities and others were revealed yesterday in a 96-page study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. Here are some of the lowlights as reported by Public Source:

Pittsburgh has a high maternal mortality rate for Black women and a high rate of homicide for Black men. The study concluded that “Black adult mortality rates are higher in Pittsburgh than in 98 percent of similar cities.”

Pittsburgh has low college admission test scores and high rates of police referrals for all students, compared to other cities. The report notes that police referrals are “disproportionately affecting Pittsburgh’s Black children and have a lasting impact on their educational attainment and economic well-being.”

Black women and children are more likely to live in poverty in Pittsburgh than in comparable cities.

The report looked at “occupational segregation,” a phenomenon where one group is more likely to hold a certain type of job than another group. For example, a high concentration of Black men work maintenance jobs, while a high concentration of white men work in construction. Researchers found that Pittsburgh has high occupational segregation for Black men but low occupational segregation for white, Asian, Latinx and Native women.

The city’s Black girls are less likely to drop out of high school or college once they begin, though fewer Black girls in Pittsburgh go on to college than Black girls in other cities.

Junia Howell, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and a co-author of the study, said it best.

“What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S., automatically by just moving their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up as well as their employment.”

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That Pittsburgh has always failed black Pittsburghers is not a new revelation. That reality has been studied, reported, and written about on countless platforms and in numerous publications, including this one. But what might be new is that it isn’t just garden-variety bad for us here. It’s the worst city for black Americans to live in. Sure, there are other cities with worse health, wealth, income, and educational outcomes for us, but those tend to be the cities where shit is bad for everyone, not just us. But white Pittsburgh is thriving. It’s booming. It’s the most livable. The “New Brooklyn.” Seattle with bridges. Austin with pierogies. It’s a city with everything in place—great health care, a thriving economy, numerous colleges and universities, etc—to be good for us, too. Which, together, just means that existing while black in Pittsburgh is like starving to death while in a supermarket aisle.

In the coming days, weeks, and months, I’m certain there will be numerous responses to this report. New policies suggested, new initiatives launched, new positions created, new black Pittsburghers promoted. Money will be thrown at this problem—grant dollars shot out of cannons like t-shirts at baseball games. And it’ll help us the way a band-aid helps an Achilles tear.

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What ails the city can’t be bought or policied or new business-initiatived out of existence. Our deficit isn’t financial or political; it’s spiritual and emotional. Pittsburgh is what Pittsburgh is because it wants to be. It wants to be a place that remains hyper-livable for most of the population while practically uninhabitable for the rest. It wants to continue to address these disparities by commissioning studies like these every few years or so; an act that performs a compulsion to reform. If Pittsburgh wants to be less dangerous for us, less dispiriting for us, less degenerative for us, it has to actually want to be. And for it to want to be, eventually, it has to admit, today, that it doesn’t want to be. It has to admit, today, that as long as it’s still the “New Brooklyn” for them, it’s fine with being the old Birmingham for us. Nothing new will happen until there’s a collective acknowledgment of being fine with what’s currently happening.

If this seems too tall a task, well, somewhere has to be the worst, right? We love being on lists, so why not that one too?

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About the author

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB and a columnist for GQ.com. His debut memoir in essays, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins), is available for preorder.