Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Pittsburgh’s city council voted to declare racism a health crisis, following precedents set by Madison and Milwaukee. Here’s what it means—and what it doesn’t.
A week after Pittsburgh’s city council signed an ordinance declaring racism a public health crisis in late December, a fog began to develop over the city. Or at least, people on Twitter and Instagram thought it was a fog and began posting photos of the ethereal mist blanketing the city over the Christmas holidays. It was actually soot—particulate matter (PM) 2.5, the kind of lung-prickling pollution that used to coat the sky regularly in Pittsburgh’s steel-making heyday. Pittsburgh has been trying to scrub that reputation for decades, but here the stuff was hanging in the air again, the result of temperature inversions on an unusually warm winter week, trapping air pollutants close to the ground across the region. It lingered in the air all the way into the new year, forcing the Allegheny County Health Department to explain its presence:
We know from research that inversions are expected to get worse with climate change. ... While we will continue to advocate for residents to do what they can to reduce emissions, we must also explore new regulations that would impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events. These extended exceedances and higher pollution levels are a clear threat to the health of the county’s residents, but ACHD’s current regulations do not provide options to address this issue.
This kind of environmental distress places a disproportionate burden on black people, but the timing for this pollution event was particularly suffocating given the racial climate in the city. Two recent reports have exposed Pittsburgh’s racial strife to the nation. One was a Columbia Journalism Review report, published in October by Thomas Jefferson University media professor Letrell Deshan Crittenden, entitled “The Pittsburgh problem: race, media and everyday life in the Steel City.” The other was a study released in September on gender and race inequality, which found Pittsburgh was statistically among the worst cities for African Americans to live in, particularly for black women.
Taken together, the reports describe racism in Pittsburgh as quotidian, and driving out or killing off black residents at precisely the time Pittsburgh has been racking up accolades for being a “most livable” city.
Rev. Ricky Burgess and Robert Daniel Lavelle, Pittsburgh’s two African-American city council members, used the reports to queue up a bill declaring racism “a public health crisis affecting our entire city.” The new legislation commits the city government to creating more racial equity opportunities in its hiring practices, diversity initiatives, and in the way it implements policies.
It also resolves the city to “incorporate into organizational work plans educational efforts to address and dismantle racism, expand the understanding of racism, and how racism affects individual and population health, and provide tools to assist members of local government to engage actively and authentically with communities of color. [And to] advocate for relevant policies that improve health in communities of color.”
The idea was adapted from Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the first cities to pass this kind of legislation earlier in 2019. It also draws from medical authorities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and Harvard University’s School of Public Health, which all agree that racism is a threat to African-Americans’ health.
The Pittsburgh public health crisis declaration was filed with two additional bills: One would establish an investment fund to develop programming for addressing racial disparities; the other a “policy forum”—a committee tasked with determining how the investment funds would be used. However, there are no funds to invest or steer, just yet.
“It’s a process that we’re beginning with, but not an end,” said Burgess. “Until we create a society where the health outcomes for African Americans are equal to or better than the majority we’re not done.”
The nine-member city council unanimously passed the ordinances on December 17 as resolutions—meaning they are not legally binding—and were signed by Mayor Bill Peduto on December 23. The next day, the smog officially thickened to health-threatening levels over the Liberty-Clairton area, where U.S. Steel’s mills still operate, regularly flaring off toxic air emissions, right off the city’s southeastern border.
There are concerns that pollution like the kind that smothered Pittsburgh over Christmas will hinder the city’s growth. But those concerns are not shared across the region. Several local business and county government leaders scorned Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto when he said in October that he opposed the expansion of petrochemical companies, including fracking operations, in the area. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said the mayor was “flat wrong” about this, while industry and labor leaders balked that the mayor’s position was bad for business. However, Peduto has insisted that industrial pollution has been scaring away the kind of large-employer companies and high-skilled professionals that the new tech-boom-era Pittsburgh has been courting—a point backed up by a January op-ed written in the local news outlet Public Source.
“I was convinced to move to Pittsburgh on the advice of a co-worker three years ago; I am now giving advice to avoid Pittsburgh,” wrote Dennis Towne, who moved to Pittsburgh from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2017 to work for Google. “The air quality may be ‘better now than in the last 50 years,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s good enough to grow the city and region.”
But lost in the fog of war between city, county, Google, and petrochemical agents are the voices of the people who have been most harshly impacted by the pollution legacy of the old economy and left behind by the largesse of the new tech economy: African-American residents. Which may explain why lately there has been a litany of op-eds, blogs, and social media posts written by black Pittsburghers who describe their living situation in the city as trapped.
Responding to Towne, Jordan Chu—a janitor at a local tech office—wrote in Medium that “it is precisely [Towne’s] ability to pack up, write this article, and move on to the next Google-sponsored town that is the problem. Because it’s not people like Dennis who are in danger; it is the people that he steps on as he makes his exit stage right.”
Melanie Meade, a black woman who lives near one of the U.S. Steel coke plants wrote in a recent op-ed for Public Source: “While I feel like I’m fighting for our basic rights to clean air, I’m living in a city that doesn’t seem to make a big deal over the pollution and its adverse effects on children and the community, especially people of color.”
There is little language on pollution and environmental justice in the public health crisis legislation. Instead, the ordinance refers to policy agendas that emphasize economic inequities, such as enhancing home ownership and entrepreneurship-employment among Pittsburgh’s black residents. As the ordinances were debated at hearings, town halls, and city council meetings through the winter, Jamil Bey, a local black activist who is helping steer one of those foundational policy agendas, Policylink’s All-In Cities strategy, began to wonder what was going on with the “public health” part of the equation.
After all, Pittsburgh is coming off a year where the air was deemed unsafe to breathe for three months, according to a report from the Penn Environment Research and Policy Center. It’s also the year the city’s air quality was graded an “F” by the American Lung Association. Meanwhile, black babies die in the region at four times the rate of white babies, and it’s disputable whether owning more houses and businesses will change that. Allegheny County Health Department maternal and child health program manager Dannai Wilson has said that “chronic exposure to structural and institutional racism, regardless of a mother’s socioeconomic status or educational attainment” is the primary culprit for high infant mortality rates among black women.
“On the one hand you rightly identify that this is a public health crisis, but then you mostly propose economic solutions,” said Bey, the president of the local environmental justice-focused Urbankind Institute, which is one of the partnering organizations in Policylink’s All-In Cities Pittsburgh collaborative. “If we are going to attach it to the All-In effort, a better strategy would have been to include public health officials, scholars, and advocates in the process to think about the content of the legislation before it was drafted. Nothing that you propose addresses public health.”
Even the mayor’s grip isn’t exactly the tightest on the environmental-health justice issues. Just months after voicing opposition to petrochemicals, Peduto tweeted opposition to Green New Deal legislation, saying that it doesn’t “put people first.” The Green New Deal is rare among climate-change minded proposals in its focus on prioritizing workers left behind by new economies.
Burgess, the city council member, told CityLab that while air quality and pollution are important, “public health” is defined in these ordinances according to what’s called the social determinants of health—a somewhat amorphous term that carries varying definitions depending on the source. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines them as economic stability, education, social or community context, healthcare, and neighborhood or built environment. But economic stability, says Burgess, is most critical.
Pittsburgh has some of the lowest rates of black women participation in the labor force and black men have some of the lowest average incomes of most cities in the U.S., according to Pittsburgh’s race and gender disparity study. The Cleveland Federal Reserve reported last year that Pittsburgh experienced one the largest gaps in earnings between white and non-white workers of any major metro between 2007 and 2017. Minority earnings dropped 4 percent in that time period while earnings for white workers increased by 13 percent.
“So it’s not a policy. It’s lots of policies and lots of resources,” said Burgess of plans to address the city’s constellation of race problems.
The ordinance doesn’t yet have any funding attached. But the hope is that funding will come from nonprofits—specifically large institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh’s medical system—and private corporations. Burgess said they would also reach out to “wealthy African Americans who live in and outside of the city” to contribute.
“We didn’t get here overnight. It took hundreds of years of systemic disinvestment and redlining,” Burgess added. “Now it’s going to take us multiple years—maybe 50 to 100 years—to undo this.”