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Calling the Kettle White

Is the mayor the best person to dispense racial-equality bromides?

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You know, the holidays really are a time for miracles. Witness Mayor Tom Murphy's epiphany last week at a meeting of the Urban Land Institute.

 

The city yearned to merge some services with county government, he lamented, but suburbanites acted "as if people in the city of Pittsburgh have horns and so we're going to rape their kids and rob their houses." His proof? The residents of lily-white Hampton Township oppose a methadone clinic.

 

It's hard to believe that this is the same mayor who just last year cleared the homeless out of their encampments right before the holiday season's Light-Up Night. Suddenly, it seems, our mayor has gone from catering to suburban fears about the city to decrying them. Suddenly, he has discovered the virtues of showing good will to all men. And all it took was a visit from the Ghost of Bankruptcies Future to make it happen.

 

God bless us, every one.

 

Well, except for Murphy's bigoted friends, that is. According to Murphy's remarks at the Land Institute, his own friends are afraid to visit him because of the "young black kids hanging out in the street."

 

To be fair to Murphy's suburban pals, racism might just be another convenient excuse -- like a sick dog or dead relative -- to get out of a boring dinner party. You can imagine the conversations taking place in the kitchens of Ross Township: "Another invitation from the Murphys? I'm still recovering from the last time, when Tom showed us slides of Washington's Landing for an hour. Let's just tell him we're afraid of the black kids, honey. I hear it worked for the Ushers."

 

Similarly, to be fair to all the other suburbanites, it's worth pointing out that Murphy's evidence for suburban racism -- opposition to that Hampton methadone clinic -- is laughable on its face. Methadone is a last-ditch treatment option for drug-users addicted to heroin, OxyContin, and other drugs. Naturally some people have misgivings about having it dispensed next door. I know I'd hate to contemplate scum like Rush Limbaugh hanging around the neighborhood playground.

 

Indeed, Hampton Township isn't the only place where methadone clinics have faced opposition. Murphy's own constituents have done the same. In the past five years, residents in both South Side and Brookline have fought proposals to bring methadone clinics to their neighborhoods. Even the residents of Braddock -- two-thirds of whom are black -- fought a late-1990s proposal to bring a methadone clinic to town. It's hard to argue that racism is a factor there.

 

And Murphy's a dubious mouthpiece for African-American concerns. A lot of African Americans apparently see him as part of the problem: In the 2001 mayoral primary, Murphy trailed challenger Bob O'Connor by 10- or 20-point margins in black wards located in the Hill District and the East End. And maybe for good reason: His recent interest in racial justice comes a little late in the day. When minority hiring at construction sites for the new stadiums fell drastically short of promised goals, for example, Murphy certainly wasn't lambasting the region's bigotry.

 

This is not to say that Murphy himself is a racist. Blacks serve in key posts in his administration, and Murphy was one of a handful of Democrats who endorsed African-American (and former County Council President) James Simms in his county-controller bid this year. You don't have to be an outright racist to support policies with racially unfair results.

 

And that's exactly the problem.

 

I grew up in one of the lily-white suburbs Murphy probably has in mind, and most of my neighbors could honestly claim that they didn't even see color. Of course, that was partly because -- just like in Hampton Township -- less than 1 percent of the population was African American. So it rarely occurred to anyone that we might owe anything to blacks who lived elsewhere. They were, after all, free to move to the leafy suburbs too: All they had to do was earn more money. Perhaps our Downtown offices were cleaned by African Americans, perhaps they waited on us at tony Downtown restaurants. But it was certainly nothing to feel guilty about. They should be grateful we ate and worked there at all.

 

During his first decade in office, that was Tom Murphy's message: All suburbanites had to do is come here -- and all we have to do is build places to visit. That's why Murphy was so popular to those living outside the city: He never pushed for the interests of those who lived inside it.

 

And so the New Pittsburgh: The new stadiums are funded with millions in county sales tax revenue every year, and Heinz Hall, the Benedum, and other upscale cultural institutions pay not a dime in property tax. Even a casual visitor will notice that the vast majority of those using these facilities are prosperous and white. As for the recreation centers and swimming pools that working-class residents -- African Americans among them -- rely upon? Most closed because of budgetary constraints.

 

I don't know if Murphy's friends shy away from visiting his home because of black kids on the corner. But his story rings true on one level: For the past decade, he's been trying to make Pittsburgh more appealing to people who are uncomfortable inside cities -- partly by making the city as suburban as possible. Thus his failed attempt to create a Downtown retail district that functions as a mall with the roof off -- a shopping galleria that doesn't offer so much a city experience as an urban-themed one. Thus his harassing the city's homeless, the most stigmatized city-dwellers of all.

 

But Murphy's suburban friends have rarely shown up for dinner -- or stayed long after the meal. They've sat down, stuffed themselves, and fled before anyone could steal their hubcaps.

 

What the city is up against is not racism or ignorance but something even more pervasive: indifference. Indifference doesn't make blacks go to the back of the bus; indifference stands by while budget cuts mean the end of bus service in black communities. Indifference assumes that, if we can root for a black man playing on the football field, we don't need to worry about how many blacks built it. It's just not our problem. 

 

 

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