Andre Perry is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. His research focuses on race and structural inequality, community engagement, education, economic inclusion and workforce development.
Two days after former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld was found not guilty of killing the unarmed teenager Antwon Rose II, an electronic billboard spotted in Armstrong County, about 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, displayed the images of Rosfeld and Rose side-by-side. The caption above Rosfeld’s photo read, “Policeman.” The caption above Rose’s picture read, “Criminal,” with overarching text that read, “Legal System Works." Text below the photos stated, "Justice Served, Get over it." It was one slide amidst a carousel of other racist images and messages. Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 reports that residents say the billboard belongs to local businessman John Placek.
Rosfeld is white; Rose is black. After Rosfeld pulled over a jitney—an unlicensed taxicab—that Rose was riding in, the police officer shot Rose in the face, elbow, and back as he fled from the vehicle, which had been reported as matching the description of an earlier drive-by shooting. The jury needed less than four hours of deliberation on just the fourth day of the trial before reaching a not guilty verdict. But we knew from the scarcity of arrests and even scarcer rate of convictions of police officers that justice for police violence against African Americans is usually denied. What the “not guilty” ruling did was send yet another clear message that it’s OK to kill black people. And that criminal justice message is not much different than the socioeconomic message sent to African Americans throughout metro Pittsburgh every day.
The underlying attitudes that make it OK to kill black people and that tell us to “get over it,” as the billboard read, are the same that keep white-led companies and investors from hiring and financing black talent. Few things signal that black people aren’t wanted in a local economy like police officers killing our children with impunity.
Many city officials and corporate leaders, including those in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, claim they want inclusive economies, which is jargon for hiring black and brown people for high-paying jobs. But you can’t have economic inclusion without social justice; the two are inextricably linked. The criminal justice system and policing practices offer the most glaring examples of this. The profits from private prisons have come at the expense of black communities’ earning potentials. Higher incarceration rates from racially discriminatory policing have hindered black communities from gaining the skills and jobs that generate middle-class incomes. State-sanctioned murder takes black people out of economies and fosters distrust of critical government agencies among those who need them most. You can’t take a city seriously that talks about creating jobs, growing a high-tech economy, and nurturing inclusion if it’s not also addressing a racist criminal justice system.
Just as the billboard is emblematic of the attitudes toward black lives, the jitney involved in the Rosfeld-Rose case is emblematic of how intertwined our social and economic lives are. Before the proliferation of Uber and Lyft, black folk who had limited employment options used the jitney service to transport folks who had limited transit options. Black folk are still driving and using jitneys for reasons similar to why Rose was killed: Black labor isn’t valued in the economy just like our lives don’t matter to police. Economic growth without inclusion is industry’s way of saying, “Get over it.”
Here’s what I mean: Based on the Brookings Institution’s latest annual Metro Monitor, Pittsburgh’s economy grew in notable ways between 2016 and 2017, the most recent years in the 2019 report. The metro ranked ninth in the nation for shared prosperity and tenth in percentage change in economic productivity, with a 2.2 percent growth rate. Living standards in metro Pittsburgh improved by 3.2 percent, the sixth best improvement in the country. However, the city ranked 75th on the inclusion index and 65th in improvements in relative poverty, with only a marginal reduction of 0.6 percent.
The median earnings of whites in Pittsburgh increased while the earnings of people of color decreased during the same period. The gap in earnings between whites and people of color grew by $2,703. Similarly, the relative poverty of white individuals decreased while more people of color became poor between 2016 and 2017. Out of the 100 cities studied, Pittsburgh, ranked 88th and 82nd in the racial median earnings and relative poverty gap respectively.
When the ten-year changes in inclusion in Pittsburgh are studied, these disparities become even greater. With a median income gap of $5,349 between whites and people of color, Pittsburgh ranks 96th among the 100 metro areas. An increase in the relative poverty gap by 5.4 percentage points, due to a decline for white and an increase for people of color, led to the city being ranked 94th in the area. The employment rate gap decreased by 1.8 points, but Pittsburgh was only ranked 48th since nearly half of the other metros showed greater degrees of improvement.
Though Pittsburgh has outpaced the national averages in improvements related to prosperity, stagnation and increasing gaps in well-being across racial groups highlight how people of color are being told to get over it.
But black residents are not simply “getting over it.” Students walked out of their classes on Monday, March 25, to protest the acquittal of the police officer who killed Antwon Rose. A crowd of roughly 1,000 young people took to the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, chanting, “Three shots in the back, how do you justify that?” in front of city hall and the county courthouse buildings.
Captains of industry as well as local elected officials should have joined them. Philanthropy helps by stewarding money to groups that help disrupt racist systems, but the reality is that we aren’t going to “non-profit” our way into an inclusive economy. How we treat people inside the workplace bares itself outside of it. Business leaders don’t need billboards to show what they think of Black families; a lack of inclusion reveals everything we already know.