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Minority Report

Pittsburgh ignores the plight of black citizens at its own peril

There are a lot of e-mails flying around lately, talking about how people are shocked and surprised by a new report on Pittsburgh's racial disparities. Issued by the University of Pittsburgh's Center on Race and Social Problems, the June 26 report tells us what many who live, work and/or play in Pittsburgh's black communities already know: We're the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to income, job opportunities and resources. That fact, naturally, affects our overall quality of life, particularly in the areas of health, child care, housing and education.

The responses to the report, and to the conditions it documents, have been amazing. Generally speaking, white people -- and black people who tend to have little or superficial interaction with the city's black communities -- seem shocked. Those of us ensconced within those communities, meanwhile, find ourselves looking around with a "What? You didn't know?" look on our faces. Because, for us, the ailment diagnosed by this study is quite stark: Black Death.

I was watching Oprah one day and Stanley Crouch referred to white suburban kids who listen to so-called gangsta rap as going on an "audio safari." Ouch! But that's a perfect metaphor, actually. Malcolm X talked about this a lot when he lived in Harlem -- how white folks loved to come into the black community and get their "slum" on with drinks, booze, drugs and women ... all while making sure the community was still, indeed, a slum. 

I've often wondered if white folks know the difference between what they see on television about black folks and what's going on in real life. But now I am quite clear the answer is no -- because even black folks seem to have trouble differentiating what they see on television from the reality of their own lives.

It's pretty amazing to watch, as the "ghettofabulousness" of VH1's Flavor of Love and all its spin-offs continuously make television history. Meanwhile, we wonder if Sen. Barack Obama is "black enough" or if he'll ever be accepted by enough white Americans to become the president? I mean, really, will he ever be "enough" if he's not flashing gold teeth, dressed in loose clothing and dancing a jig?

The sad part about the center's study and our reactions to it is that we are breaking national records in our poverty and in our dance with death. And yet when we have a chance to change the course of history -- by demanding that black residents have an equity stake in the new Penguins arena and surrounding development -- only a small group of us have acted, and in the absence of leadership.

Ralph Ellison wrote about the "Invisible Man"; I am going to talk about Invisible Leadership. I find it disgraceful that so many black and white elected officials (with the exception of Hill District state Rep. Jake Wheatley Jr.) could remain silent or neutral on these issues.

How do you remain silent or neutral about us losing our very lives? What does it matter if you have a good job or a nice car if you can get shot on your way to work or carjacked at every turn? If your kids can't go to school with other children because so many of their peers are ill-prepared and, therefore, poor role models? I saw a billboard for a K-12 "cyber school" the other day and it sickened me: Are we that removed from each other's essential humanity?

We cannot privatize our souls. We can't keep our families gated. We are going to have to interact. And talk. And care about one another. Unless we do, none of us will survive.

Don't forget that misery loves company. You shouldn't be surprised when shots are fired in the middle of a weekday morning, just outside a Downtown child-care facility, or when people are busting caps at swimming pools. Welcome to the fruits of our collective indifference, apathy, individualism and shortsightedness.

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