Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Pittsburgh is the worst place for black women to live in for just about every indicator of livability, says the city’s Gender Equity Commission.
On June 14, Stanlee Allyn Holbrook, a 26-year-old black mother, parked her car on the Homestead Bridge in Pittsburgh and then took her life by jumping into the Monongehela River below. Her three children were left in the car. A neighbor, Joanna D’Amico, told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Lacretia Wimbley that Holbrook was a disciplined caregiver for her kids. She didn’t understand why Holbrook committed suicide because she “didn’t show a sign that something was wrong.”
It may have been a sign that there is something tremendously wrong with Pittsburgh, though, for black women.
The city of Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission released a white paper this week that shows just how stark African Americans’ chances for survival are in Pittsburgh. The findings for black women in particular are troubling. In evaluating how well life is going for Pittsburgh residents along the lines of gender and race, the study finds that white men and women are mostly enjoying either average or above-average standards of livability compared to other racial groups in the city.
However, “Pittsburgh is considerably less livable for black men than other similar cities … particularly true when it comes to health and employment outcomes,” reads the study. “Pittsburgh is arguably the most unlivable for black women.”
The word choice here is an obvious nod to the various “most livable city” superlatives that Pittsburgh has picked up in recent years. In fact, the University of Pittsburgh researchers who produced the study created an “Index of Ranked Livability” to measure how abundantly or poorly each demographic is doing within the broad categories of health, poverty/income, employment, and education, and along several dozen sub-categories.
The study focuses on six population groups: white men and women, black men and women, and the men and women of a third hybrid racial group called AMLON, an acronym for “Asian, Multiracial, Latinx, Other, Native American” (These racial categories are too small in numbers in Pittsburgh to be analyzed separately without compromising privacy concerns, according to the study).
The researchers looked at not only how each of these groups fared in livability compared to other race and gender population groups within Pittsburgh, but also in comparison to their peer demographic dates across 89 cities of similar size and characteristics nationwide. They also compare the index of racial and gender inequalities within Pittsburgh to those found in similar cities as well.
Overall, what they found was that Pittsburgh is a pretty average city along each of the livability categories, if you’re white. White Pittsburgh residents are doing about as well or bad as white people in other comparable cities. But for African Americans, here’s where the signs show trouble. Black people in just about every other comparable city in the U.S. are doing far better in terms of health, income, employment, and educational outcomes than black people living in Pittsburgh.
The signals are even more distressing for black girls and women, who suffer from higher poverty rates, birth defect rates, death rates, unemployment rates, and school arrest rates than black girls and women in just about every other city examined in this study. Outcomes for black men were only slightly better than for black women in just about every regard.
As University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell, co-author of the white paper, told Public Source, “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. … 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.”
We don’t know what drove Stanlee Allyn Holbrook to take her life earlier this summer. What we do know from the study is that in Pittsburgh, black women are more likely to commit suicide than black women in most other cities—distinct from white men who commit suicide at rates lower than white men in comparable cities.
It has been reported that, a year before she died, Holbrook gave birth to a premature baby in a city where 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death, compared to 9 in a 1,000 pregnancies for white women. Pittsburgh’s black fetal mortality rate is higher than it is in 94 percent of similar cities. The city’s black mothers give birth to babies of low birth weight at twice the rate that white mothers do, and it ranks in the bottom 25 percent of cities for black mothers experiencing low-birth weight for their babies.
Lack of prenatal care doesn’t explain the black women’s reproductive crisis in Pittsburgh. The study finds that black mothers start prenatal treatments at the same time as white and AMLON mothers, at ten weeks. In fact, researchers found that black women on average begin prenatal care sooner than black women do in 92 percent of other cities. Nor are the problems of low birth weight and other defects the result of educational or economic status. The racial disparities on this front existed for black women whether they were college graduates or WIC recipients. “Racial inequality, not education or income, drives the observed inequities,” reads the study.
Once a baby arrives, for white infants and AMLON infants, the chances of surviving past one year are good and better than the chances of babies born in most other cities. Even black male infants fare at about the same rate as black male infants in at least half of other cities. But not black female babies—they have a mortality rate that’s higher than that of black female infants in at least 70 percent of other cities.
But while education and economics don’t seem to affect the likelihood of miscarriage or the baby’s pre-birth survival, they do matter in the lives of black women in general. As far as income goes, black women are working with far less than members of any other racial group, male or female, within Pittsburgh. In fact, white men bring in twice as much income annually as black women in the city. But when it comes to their peers in other places, black women have lower poverty rates in 85 percent of comparable cities than black women in Pittsburgh. In fact, black women have higher median incomes in 90 percent of similar cities than do black Pittsburgh women.
When it comes to unemployment—specifically those outside of the workforce who are actively looking for a job—most of Pittsburgh’s racial groups lag behind their peers in other cities, including white men. But, once again, no one lags like black Pittsburgh women, who have a higher percentage of their population left jobless than black women in 97 percent of other peer cities. The unemployment crisis is also dire for black men, and neither are out of work for lack of trying—the gap between white and black employment in Pittsburgh is higher than that of 85 percent of the other cities studied, leading the report to project that “Pittsburgh’s strikingly low black employment is likely not due to the city’s economy, but the failure of employers to hire black workers who are seeking jobs.”
The one area where African Americans do well in Pittsburgh is educational achievement, particularly among black men. The report notes that there are more college-educated African American men in Pittsburgh than there are in 60 percent of its fellow cities; that ranking rises even higher for black men with graduate degrees.
The caveat here is that, of course, not all black men in Pittsburgh’s grad schools are actually from Pittsburgh. Junia Howell told CityLab that they weren’t “able to distinguish between those who grew up in Pittsburgh from those who relocate to Pittsburgh for college, graduate school, or work.”
For black women in Pittsburgh, the education story is less optimistic: They have lower college completion rates than black women in 60 percent of other comparable cities.
But before black women in Pittsburgh even get to college, before they become the mothers and the motherless, the employed and the unemployed, they are targeted as teens, often in their own schools. There is no city in Pennsylvania where schools refer students to the police like Pittsburgh, and there are few cities in the United States that do worse when it comes to siccing police on students, no matter the race. But once again, black girls in Pittsburgh schools suffer the worst from this: Pittsburgh refers more black girls to police than is true for 99 percent of similar cities.
One black woman in Pittsburgh who understands more than most how black boys and girls are overpoliced is Melanie Carter, a prominent Pittsburgh racial justice activist and rapper who goes by the name Black Rapp M.A.D.U.S.A. She works with black youth through a local organization called 1Hood Media. In 2017, she was thrown to the ground and arrested for disorderly conduct by a police officer after she video-recorded cops who were harassing black teenagers at a local movie theater. Her video, which showed a police officer calling the young black people “animals” at the theater, went viral.
The charges against her were dropped earlier this year, and, with the Abolitionist Law Center, Carter is now suing the police department in federal court. But as she told a local media outlet: “We have to re-humanize black women and girls. We have to protect black women and girls.”
It probably didn’t take this Pittsburgh study for her and thousands of black women across the city to realize this.