Black professionals have flocked to Atlanta for decades, while Pittsburgh still has a long way to go, says KEITH REED, who knows both cities well
March 5, 2017 12:00 AM
By Keith Reed
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, my former boss, loves talking about his city’s history. One of his favorite stories dates to 1965: Then-Mayor Ivan Allen worked with former Coca-Cola president Robert Woodruff to get the mostly white, entirely segregated corporate community to support a dinner in honor of Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Allen and Mr. Woodruff were white and neither was a racial progressive. But Atlanta wanted to grow into an international metro and couldn’t afford the global embarrassment of shunning its hometown Nobel laureate. Coke, one of the city’s biggest employers, stood to lose money if its executives had to answer overseas for Atlanta’s intolerance.
Pragmatism won: Mr. Woodruff’s word was good enough to get 1,600 business and civic leaders who couldn’t afford to tick him off to show up for Atlanta’s first integrated business dinner. The city never looked back.
I worked for Mr. Reed until last July, and in the year that I wrote his speeches, I learned so much about Atlanta’s history. I could discuss how the city transformed itself from “from a sleepy, Southern town into the pre-eminent economy in the Southeastern United States” in my sleep. In the process, I learned what made Atlanta a mecca for people like me: ambitious, young black professionals and entrepreneurs who left Pittsburgh for blacker pastures.
In short, neither Pittsburgh nor Atlanta arrived where it is accidentally. One city has a history of deliberate, institutional engagement with its African-American community, which in turn contributed to decades of population and economic growth. The other is Pittsburgh, where predominantly black communities have never attained political or economic power independently and have been ignored by the city’s bureaucracy, divested by its economic leaders and abused by its police department. Any discussion of why Pittsburgh lacks a vibrant black middle class can’t ignore that the town’s outcomes are a direct result of its inputs. [See the Post-Gazette’s “The Black Experience,” Feb. 26-27.]
Atlanta elected its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, eight years after the Coke-brokered MLK dinner. It wasn’t an easy race, but the city’s former segregationist power brokers recognized that its complexion had changed; progress would come with full black participation or not at all. Mr. Jackson created so many opportunities for black contractors and other entrepreneurs that his name today adorns the city’s airport (which, they love to remind you down there, is also the world’s busiest). Black professionals flocked. The Atlanta University Center, a cluster of historically black colleges which was the epicenter of the student civil rights protest movement, ensures a steady stream of future black professionals.
Every Atlanta mayor since Mr. Jackson has been black. It’s no coincidence that Mr. Reed is a Howard University-educated attorney who made his bones representing rappers and other entertainers — Atlanta is the Motown of the South, after all. It’s also no coincidence that Atlanta felt so much like home to me, because some of my high school classmates and relatives from Pittsburgh were already living there when I showed up.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has yet to come close to electing a black mayor, a sign of both black antipathy and willful marginalization by the city’s political interests. By comparison, nearly every major city within 400 miles — Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Philly, New York, Newark, Baltimore — has forgotten that that was even a milestone.
The city has made economic progress since I graduated from Westinghouse High School and moved away in 1995, but it’s impossible not to notice that new development hasn’t fought its way past the Lower Hill or out of the newly gentrified East Liberty and into Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington or Homewood. Pittsburgh has two black sitting city council members. But it appears to lack power brokers, black or white, capable or willing to facilitate its own Robert Woodruff moment — a paradigm shift signaling to African-Americans (or potential Caribbean and African immigrants) that the city is welcoming, that it wants their dollars, their input and the value of having its neighborhoods and institutions shaped by them.
Public safety remains a concern in the neighborhoods where that development is nonexistent. It makes sense; crime usually fills gaps in economic opportunity. Pittsburgh has a lower violent crime rate than other cities its size, but in some of its black neighborhoods, violent crime still rivals that in much larger cities.
If it ever wants to get ahead of that problem, Pittsburgh’s police department will have to earn the trust of black residents, which today it does not have. Blame the brutal assault on Jordan Miles, the shooting of Leon Ford and many other incidents in which officers haven’t been held to account for violence against black citizens. Blame the local Fraternal Order of Police, which supported a black police chief who was convicted of misconduct but took offense to a white chief who dared agree with the idea that the lives of black citizens had value. Residents won’t help cops they don’t trust.
Officials here have always been eager to brag about Pittsburgh’s ranking as one of the country’s most livable cities. But if Pittsburgh is really concerned with its lack of a black middle class, it must own the fact that it falls far short of that designation for its black residents and that many of our civic cheerleaders share in the blame.
Keith Reed, former deputy press secretary for the City of Atlanta, lives in Lincoln-Lemington (email@example.com). He’s worked as a senior editor at ESPN the Magazine and for The Boston Globe, and he served on the board of the National Association of Black Journalists.
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